Researchers and Coast Salish People Analyze 160-Year-Old Indigenous Dog Pelt in the Smithsonian's Collection


December 15, 2023
A new analysis sheds light on the ancestry and genetics of woolly dogs, a now extinct breed of dog that was a fixture of Indigenous Coast Salish communities in the Pacific Northwest for millennia. Anthropologists and biologists analyzed genetic clues preserved in the pelt of 'Mutton,' the only known woolly dog fleece in the world, to pinpoint the genes responsible for their highly sought-after woolly fur. The study's findings include interviews contributed by several Coast Salish co-authors, including Elders, Knowledge Keepers and Master Weavers, who provided crucial context about the role woolly dogs played in Coast Salish society. 


   In a groundbreaking study, scientists from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History have delved into the origins and genetic makeup of woolly dogs, an extinct canine breed integral to Indigenous Coast Salish communities in the Pacific Northwest. Headed by anthropologist Logan Kistler and evolutionary molecular biologist Audrey Lin, the team conducted a thorough analysis of genetic markers found in the unique fleece of "Mutton," the sole existing woolly dog pelt. This research successfully identified the specific genes responsible for the prized woolly fur that characterized these dogs for countless generations among the Coast Salish people.

Today, on December 14, the significant discoveries from the study are unveiled in the journal Science. The findings incorporate insights from interviews with various Coast Salish co-authors, including Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and Master Weavers. These invaluable contributions offer essential context, revealing the pivotal role that woolly dogs played in the fabric of Coast Salish society.
"Understanding the study's findings hinged entirely on the traditional perspective of the Coast Salish," emphasized Kistler, the curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics at the museum.

For millennia, Coast Salish tribal nations in Washington state and British Columbia nurtured and bred woolly dogs. Esteemed for their dense undercoats, these dogs underwent shearing similar to sheep. They were often carefully housed in pens or on islands, allowing meticulous control over their breeding and ensuring their overall well-being. The wool harvested from these dogs played a vital role in Coast Salish weaving traditions, with blankets and various woven items serving ceremonial and spiritual purposes. Beyond their utilitarian value, woolly dogs held spiritual significance, often regarded as cherished members of the family. These dogs became emblematic for many Coast Salish communities, adorning woven baskets and various art forms.

By the mid-19th century, the once-thriving tradition of weaving with dog wool began to wane. In the late 1850s, naturalist and ethnographer George Gibbs cared for a woolly dog named Mutton. Following Mutton's passing in 1859, Gibbs sent the dog's pelt to the fledgling Smithsonian Institution, where it has been housed ever since. However, awareness of the pelt remained limited until its rediscovery in the early 2000s.
The story of Mutton caught Lin's attention during her tenure as a Peter Buck postdoctoral fellow at the museum in 2021.

"When I laid eyes on Mutton in person for the first time, excitement overwhelmed me," shared Lin, now a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History. "Despite hearing he was a bit scraggly from others, I found him absolutely stunning."

Lin was taken aback to discover the lack of genetic research on woolly dogs, a breed that vanished around the turn of the 20th century. Collaborating with Kistler, they reached out to several Coast Salish communities to gauge interest in a joint research project on woolly dogs.

Surprisingly, many in the Coast Salish communities were enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge.

"Participating in a study that combines cutting-edge Western science with our well-established Traditional Knowledge was incredibly exciting," expressed Michael Pavel, an Elder from the Skokomish/Twana Coast Salish community in Washington. Pavel, who recalls hearing about woolly dogs in his early childhood, added, "Contributing to this effort to embrace and celebrate our understanding of the woolly dog was truly rewarding."
In addition to insights shared by Michael Pavel and other Coast Salish individuals from British Columbia and Washington state (you can find their interviews in the study's supplementary materials), Lin, Kistler, and their team embarked on a genetic exploration of Mutton. They decoded the woolly dog's genome, comparing it with both ancient and modern dog breeds to uncover the distinctive features of woolly dogs. Concurrently, they examined isotopic chemical signatures in Mutton's pelt to discern the dog's diet. Collaborating with renowned natural history illustrator Karen Carr, they brought Mutton to life in a detailed reconstruction, marking the first comprehensive depiction of a Coast Salish woolly dog in nearly three decades.

The genetic analysis revealed that woolly dogs diverged from other breeds around 5,000 years ago, aligning with archaeological findings in the region. Surprisingly, Mutton's genetic makeup closely resembled that of pre-colonial dogs from Newfoundland and British Columbia. The researchers estimated that approximately 85% of Mutton's ancestry could be traced back to these ancient dogs. This revelation is remarkable because Mutton lived well after the introduction of European dog breeds. It suggests that Coast Salish communities likely preserved the unique genetic characteristics of woolly dogs until shortly before their extinction.
The research team meticulously examined over 11,000 different genes within Mutton's genome to unravel the secrets behind woolly dogs' plush fleece and the wool fibers that could be skillfully spun into yarn. Among their discoveries were 28 genes associated with hair growth and follicle regeneration. Notably, these included a gene linked to a woolly hair trait in humans and another associated with curly hair in other dog breeds. Intriguingly, similar genes were found to be activated in the genomes of woolly mammoths.

Despite these genetic insights, Mutton's genome offered little information on the factors contributing to the decline of woolly dogs. Traditionally, scholars speculated that the introduction of machine-made blankets in the early 19th century rendered woolly dogs obsolete. However, input from Michael Pavel and other traditional experts challenged this notion, suggesting that such a pivotal aspect of Coast Salish society was unlikely to be easily replaced.
Rather than succumbing to the arrival of machine-made blankets, woolly dogs likely faced a grim fate due to a combination of factors affecting the Coast Salish tribal nations post-European settlement. The onslaught of diseases and the implementation of colonial policies promoting cultural genocide, displacement, and forced assimilation probably made it increasingly challenging, if not outright prohibited, for Coast Salish communities to sustain their woolly dog populations.

"It was thousands of years of very careful maintenance lost within a couple of generations," remarked Lin.

Despite the disappearance of woolly dogs, the legacy of these canine companions endures in Coast Salish society. Michael Pavel believes that the recent research effort is shedding new light on their understanding of woolly dogs.

"All of our communities held a certain aspect of knowledge about the woolly dog," Pavel shared. "But when woven together, as a result of participating in this study, we now have a much more complete understanding."
The collaborative effort behind this study involved researchers affiliated with a diverse range of institutions, including Vancouver Island University, University of Utah, University of Victoria, The Evergreen State College, Skokomish Nation, Squamish Nation, Musqueam First Nation, Karen Carr Studio, Queen Mary University of London, Texas A&M University, Simon Fraser University, The Francis Crick Institute, University of East Anglia, Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, University of Oxford, University of York, Centre for Paleogenetics in Sweden, Stockholm University, Swedish Museum of Natural History, University of Copenhagen, the National Institutes of Health in the United States, Memorial University of Newfoundland, University of California at Davis, University of Copenhagen, and Cardiff University.

This research received support from various organizations, including the Smithsonian, European Molecular Biology Organization, Vallee Foundation, European Research Council, Wellcome Trust, Francis Crick Institute, Cancer Research UK, Medical Research Council, and Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.