Tracking ancient dog populations in Africa
About the project

Humans domesticated dogs before any other animal — fitting for our "best friends." Scientists, however, still do not know where, when, or how this happened. To discover the origin of dogs, we need to identify ancient genetic markers and see how they vary across regions. As a result of many generations of selective breeding for kennel clubs, pet dogs in developed countries contain only a small fraction of dogs' original genetic diversity. Thus, we urgently need to collect DNA from free-ranging "village" dogs found in isolated populations around the world. If we wait, these village dogs' ancient genes will be lost forever as Western breed dogs are taken across the globe and breed with the local dogs.

With your help, we will sample dogs in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer; due to their isolation these dogs offer our best hope of obtaining the pure genetic remnants of the first African dogs.

Samples from these dogs, combined with the genes of dogs from isolated places across Asia, Europe, and the Americas, will allow us to see which genes these diverse populations share that differ from wolves, pinpointing the genes related to domestication. These patterns will allow us to determine when and where dogs were first domesticated and to trace human migration and trade routes (for example, Brazilian dogs are most closely related to Portuguese dogs due to colonial activity).

Why this matters

Studying village dogs can improve dog and human health. By examining the genetic differences in village dogs from different places, we can determine genes related to local diet and climate, physical traits, and genetic diseases. Finding these genes allows for targeted therapies and genetic tests that could prove useful in improving dog and even human health — several genes causing human disorders have been first found in dogs!

Village dogs are an important intermediate between modern purebred dogs and wild canid species. In purebred dogs, artificial selection has created dogs weighing four pounds and dogs weighing 200 pounds, dogs with long snouts and dogs with hardly any snout at all, and dogs of all sorts of coat colors and lengths, even hairless varieties! Most dogs around the world, however, are village dogs: dogs that are generally short-haired, tan, and about 35 pounds. This suggests that natural selection creates a pressure for a certain type of dog while artificial selection can override this and select for all kinds of diverse physical traits. Understanding these differences would advance our understanding of evolution and how we affect the genes of other organisms — everything from cats to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

What your money can do

Having domesticated animals is a large part of what makes us human, but this domestication history written in the village dog genome is being eroded as genetically isolated populations become mixed with imported modern dog breeds. Your donation will allow us to collect and analyze DNA from remote populations now before it’s too late. These samples offer us our best chance of understanding dog domestication and could give us unique opportunities to come to know the mechanisms of certain genetic diseases and the best way to invigorate genetic diversity in some modern breeds.

Your support will pay travel and equipment costs and wages for local assistants. Additional funding beyond $8,000 would help us to collect samples from more remote locations in these countries. With $20,000, we would be able to collect and analyze the DNA and RNA (another kind of genetic material) from a large and diverse group of African village dogs; with $30,000, we could also assemble and analyze the entire genome of one of these amazing animals.

Potential discoveries

This data will help us pinpoint where and when dogs were domesticated and the paths dogs (and humans) took across the globe. We will also be able to determine which genetic changes first caused wolves to become dogs. Our data can be used to uncover genes undergoing selection and genes underlying diseases and traits such as size and fur color. This will help us understand dogs’ traits and genetic diseases which may lead to discoveries that improve dog and human health. We can uncover the regions where different breeds originated, such as basenjis in Sub-Saharan Africa. The village dogs in these areas could then be used to remove genetic diseases from a breed’s stock by a breeding program. We will also collect parasites from the dogs to enable further study on fleas, ticks and mites that impact health worldwide.


This effort is led by two brothers, Adam and Ryan Boyko. Growing up, their parents instilled in them equal parts dog lover and adventurer. Their Mother’s Day trips alone (courtesy of their dad giving their mom a break) resulted in being lost in a Panamanian jungle and in Missouri on a raft far from civilization. On one such trip they successfully escaped a tornado at 1am and made it back home to their faithful mutts who were always there to greet them at the door.

Dr. Adam Boyko is a geneticist at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, specializing in canine genetics. He’s equally comfortable around poodles, Pomeranians, and PCR machines, though his passion is for village dogs. In addition to unraveling the domestication of the dog, Adam studies how artificial and natural selection affect genomes, addressing some of the most basic questions in evolutionary biology. Adam’s research also identifies traits underlying canine characteristics and disease.

Ryan Boyko is a doctoral student at Yale University’s School of Public Health. Much of the time he studies parasitic tropical diseases, currently focusing on African sleeping sickness. However his penchant for travel in often-dangerous African countries and his skill at muzzling uncooperative dogs makes him a natural fit to lead field expeditions to gather African dog DNA. While maintaining a productive research career spanning from primate behavior to malaria, he has found time to travel to several countries for this project and is proud to have only been bitten twice thus far.

Julia Randall will be traveling with Ryan as a research assistant for this trip; her second trip with the project. She is starting medical school at the University of Massachusetts this fall and is already a phlebotomist-extraordinaire.

This project has already collected and analyzed DNA from dogs in many places around the world with the help of several collaborators. It is part of the Cornell Village Dog Genetic Diversity Project. Our new website will be up soon and we will be sure to add an update with the URL once it is!

** Fine print about $5000+ rewards:

African puppy reward: If you select this award, you will be required to show that you can provide a good home for the dog before you will be given one. Street dogs can require significant investment in time and training. The puppy will be approximately 2-3 months old and given to you in New York or southern New England. We will pay the costs for the necessary paperwork and transportation costs to get it there. If you would prefer the puppy be delivered to you somewhere else, you will need to pay the cost for it to fly with one of us from New York or Boston to your location (if you live outside the lower 48 US states please contact us at before pledging this to see if we can work an arrangement out). You will need to pay the costs for any vaccines or care after it arrives and will need to be able to quarantine it at your house until a month after it has its rabies shot at around three months of age.

Personal talk from Adam or Ryan reward: Adam or Ryan can only travel in the lower 48 US states. If you live outside that area or you would like both brothers to give a talk together, you can inquire with Adam and Ryan directly via email at to see if we can work an arrangement out. The date will be mutually agreed upon after the project is funded.

Sunday June 17, 2012
$15+ Backer only update
Tuesday June 05, 2012
$100+ Backer only update
Tuesday June 05, 2012
$15+ Backer only update
Saturday May 19, 2012

Thanks to everyone who donated, we've surpassed our goal! There will be more details and updates soon for all who donated, but for now I can give you a little taste of our itinerary:

We're starting our trip in Liberia, traveling to Lofa County and Nimba County, two rural counties there.

Following that we're headed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where we'll sample near Kinshasa, near Kikwit in Central Congo and near Boende in the rural, northern part of the country. We're supplementing this in-country sampling with sampling imported basenjis that originated further East in Congo.

Here's looking forward to a great summer of research!

Wednesday May 16, 2012

With three days left we're only $200 away from our goal! Thank you to all who have donated! With just a few more contributions we'll make it to $8,000 and be able to pay for travel expenses for the summer.

In other exciting news we've again worked to expand the research beyond dog genetics. We're now going to be collecting parasite samples from human households with exposure to dogs to see if parasites are passed between the two species. 

In Africa, intestinal parasites are a huge burden on the population especially on children. Children with chronic intestinal parasites have been shown to exhibit high incidence of malnutrition, decreased cognitive function and social responsiveness, and many other negative effects. Intestinal parasites can be easily and cheaply treated (often less than a dollar for treatment) but the re-exposure rate is high. If we can determine the relative frequency of inter-species (dog to human and vice versa) transmission we may be able to concurrently treat dogs for parasites to lower human re-exposure rates. 
Any money we raise over the $8,000 will go toward our dog research and sample analysis. All Petri Dish money will go toward the dog-specific research outlined in our proposal, but it also makes it possible to conduct the health research which could potentially have major health effects in the communities we study and around the world. 
Thank you again for your continued support! 
Wednesday May 09, 2012

Thanks to 95 donors, we're more than 75% of the way toward our goal of $8,000 with 10 days left! I've also now decided to focus my PhD research on parasites and diseases shared by dogs and humans, including several worms and ticks as well as leishmaniasis and Ebola, meaning your donations will very directly fund research to improve health for humans and dogs (and of course we're also still studying the history of the dog and offering awesome prizes for those who donate).

So please share this project with anyone you think may be interested. We have 10 days to raise about $1900!

Thank you for all your help! We are getting very excited for the summer!


Wednesday April 25, 2012

Thanks to everyone who has already donated to the project and spread the word, we've raised about 60% of our goal in just over half our time! Our planning for the summer is coming along well and we're getting very excited!

As we start the 2nd half of our fund drive, we have some exciting updates: Adam has a new lab webpage at Also, it looks like Ryan will have the opportunity to do more in depth studies of the parasites of these dogs and so we will be able to have a real chance to conduct studies that will ultimately improve the lives of the people and dogs in these areas and potentially many others too. Stay tuned (or email us) for more details!

Wednesday March 21, 2012

Nearly $2000 in support in the first day and a half! A great
start - thanks to all who have already donated!

blog comments powered by Disqus
This project was successful!
$15 +
Updates from the field, thank you email from the research team including incredibly cute dog photos and your name on a donor page on our website.
$30 +
Signed photograph (8x10) of Village Dog (from selected photographs of the trip) plus all of the above.
$50 +
Invitation to a special talk about the project in Boston or New York City plus all of the above.
$80 +
Invitation for a both you and a guest to a special talk about the project in Boston or New York City plus all of the above.
$100 +
Small dog-related souvenir from Africa and “gold donor” status that allows you to add a short (400 character) comment, small photo and website or email link on our donor page, plus all of the above.
$250 +
Membership in “Adopt a Village Dog Program.” You’ll get photos of the dog, get a chance to name it in our database and receive all of the analysis from that dog (learn its ancestry and characteristics), plus all of the above.
$500 +
Four weekly 15 minute video chats from the field and acknowledgment in any published scientific journal article related to the work of the expedition plus all of the above.
$1,000 +
We will provide genetic analysis of your own dog plus all of the above.
$5,000 +
0 BACKERS • Limited Reward (2 of 2 remaining)
We'll bring home a live rescue puppy from Africa for you to adopt! Genetic analysis, plus all of the above included (please read the fine print and contact us before selecting this reward level)
$5,001 +
0 BACKERS • Limited Reward (2 of 2 remaining)
Adam or Ryan (your choice) will fly to your location and give a talk to you and your friends/kennel club/organization about the research one evening plus all of the above, except the puppy from Africa. (please read fine print about this reward in project description first)
and 89 others