Monday, February 5, 2024

Tail Wagging in Dogs: Research Needed

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Nature, Wildlife, Society, Culture, Biological Evolution, History of Science, Nature of Science

Dogs wag their tails and so do wolves but they appear to do it less frequently than dogs.

In an Opinion Piece in Biology Letters, January 17, 2024, "Why do dogs wag their tails?", Silvia Leonetti and three co-authors summarize what is known and suggest two hypotheses to be tested.

The framework was developed by animal behaviorist Nikolaas Tinbergen, who with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He proposed his four questions in his now classic 1963 paper, On aims and methods of ethologyZ. Tierpsychol. 20, 410-433. This paper is linked in the opinion piece.

The four questions are:  How does it work, mechanistically? How does it develop? What is it for? How did it evolve?

Each of these is discussed following the abstract and an introduction in which the authors state  "Despite the ubiquity of dogs in our lives and all the meaning we ascribe to tail wagging, quantitative studies to date have led to patchy results and a structured theoretical framework is missing."

The authors discuss each of Tinbergen's four questions in detail, the effects of domestication on tail wagging behaviour, make recommendations and suggest future research directions, and conclude by writing "Dog tail wagging is a conspicuous yet scientifically elusive behaviour. Its uniqueness, complexity and ubiquity have the potential to be associated with multiple functions, but its mechanisms and ontogeny are still poorly understood. These knowledge gaps prevent us from fully understanding the evolutionary history of modern tail wagging behaviour and what role humans played in the process. A more systematic and thorough investigation of tail wagging will not only better map this iconic dog behavioural display, but also provide indirect evidence into the evolution of human traits, such as the perception and production of rhythmic stimuli."

The complete opinion piece may be read here where you may also learn about the author's affiliations and responsibilities for writing the paper, how the writing was funded as well as a follow up on references made in the paper.

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