We all know that dog’s evolved from wolves. In only a few thousands of years, the dog has gone from the savage wolf to our peaceful companion and faithful sidekick. But let’s take a look back farther. Before the Labrador or the Pekingese, before Pit Bulls and toy poodles. Back even before the wolf or coyote, to a time on planet earth when giant animals and strange looking creatures ran the show, and our ancestors were furry little monkey-things high in the trees. After all, where did wolf’s ancestors come from? What did the first dogs really look like? Below, we take a simple and straightforward look at some of the ancient dog subfamilies that populated the earth for millions of years.
Deep in the past, say around 40 million years ago, the dog was just beginning. The true carnivores of the mammal family were arriving on planet earth, and the dog was among the earliest. Hesperocyon was a tiny beginning of things to come. Looking more like a weasel (and not much bigger), this early relative of the dog had a large, bushy tail and thin, fox-like body. With it’s pointy face, which was a cross between a greyhound, a wolf and a ferret, the Hesperocyon was one of the two major dog families (being part of the group of early dogs known as hesperocyonines).
Though anything we know about the hesperocyon is speculation–after all, scientist can only make educated guesses as to what fossils mean–these animals would have probably been community based and hunted animals by scavenging or stalking and pouncing (like a fox) as opposed to organized chasing (like a wolf).
(fig. 1) Hesperocyon Gregarius
Known as “bear-dogs”, this now extinct family of animals began in the early Miocene era (some 24 million years ago and were some of the most successful early carnivores. With mammals still in their early forms, the bear-dogs combine features of bears, dogs, cats, raccoons and even pandas, and were most likely a formidable and agile predators
The reason that Amphicyonids were wrongly classified as dogs came from scientists lumping them in the family Canidae (the dog family) early in their discovery. Even today, most scientists and taxonomists believe that bears, dogs and raccoons are much more closely related to one another than other types of predators, like cats, weasels or hyenas.
A well known bear dog is the beastly Amphicyon major, who is known from many fossil deposits in Europe. With males exceeding 400 pounds, Amphicyon had the body of a cat, big bear feet and the head of a dog.
(fig. 2)Ancient bear-dogs battle over a carcass
Literally meaning “bone eaters”, these early dogs were the stuff of nightmares. Larger than any living dog ever, borophagines like Epicyon Haydeni stood 95cm at the shoulders, making them bigger than our earliest relatives and well over three feet tall at the shoulder. With hyena-like teeth (though they were not related to hyenas), these savage predators combined the fiercest features of the grey wolf, the pit bull and a giant hyena. It’s thought they would have hunted in packs similar to wolves, bringing down great predators and terrorizing the ancient North American countryside, which was where they lived until around five million years ago.
The Borophagines, as a family of early canids, begin to show diversity with their specializations and development. Very adaptive, these creatures came in all shapes in sizes. The subfamily Borophagus had specialized teeth that were cone-shaped, making them especially suited to crunching on bone and getting to the nutritious marrow inside.
(fig. 3)The giant Epicyon chases down prey
This dog subfamily is also the only one that is still living. Beginning around three million years ago in Eurasia (and a possible offshoot from wandering Borophagines from millions of years before), these small, stealthy predators looked like a cross between a raccoon and a dog. A relative of ancient Nyctereutes can be seen in the raccoon dog of modern Asia, which split from the ancient species probably five million years ago.
(fig. 4) A modern Racoon Dog, a suriving member of the Nyctereutes
For more detailed information, two great books exist on the subject of ancient mammals, National Geographic’s Prehistoric Mammals by Alan Turner and the much more comprehensive After the Dinosaurs by Donald R Prothero.