A statue was dedicated to him in Central Park in New York, and there was even a film about him: a sled dog named Balto. Now it’s the focus of a DNA study, 90 years after his death, to see what made the dog so notoriously tough.
In 1925, this Siberian husky was part of an Alaskan expedition called the Serum Run, the goal of which was to bring life-saving medicine to young people in the remote town of Nome who were threatened by diphtheria.
The mission in dire blizzard conditions involved a series of sled dog teams carrying the anti-toxin relay from the city of Anchorage – more than 600 mile long trek.
Although more than 150 dogs in all took part in the record-breaking run, it was Balto who led the final 53-mile stretch and got most of the glory. He continued to tour the country, a bona fide celebrity.
After Balto’s death in 1933, his remains were preserved and put on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
“Balto’s fame and the fact that he was taxidermied gave us this fantastic opportunity 100 years later to see what that sled dog population would have looked like genetically and to compare it to modern dogs,” said Katherine Moon, postdoctoral researcher from the University of California, Santa Cruz and the study’s lead author.
It was published Thursday in the journal Science.
His team took skin samples from the dog’s belly and reconstructed its genome, the complete set of genes in an organism.
They compared this genetic material to that of 680 contemporary dogs of 135 breeds.
Contrary to a legend that claimed Balto was half-wolf – as suggested in a Universal Pictures animated film released in 1995 – this analysis found no evidence that he had wolf blood.
Balto was found to share ancestry with modern Siberian huskies and Alaskan and Greenland sled dogs.
Moon’s team also compared Balto’s genes with the genomes of 240 other mammal species as part of an international effort called the Zoonomia Project.
This allowed the researchers to determine which bits of DNA were common to all those species and therefore haven’t changed over millions of years of evolution.
This stability suggests that these DNA stretches are associated with important functions in the animal and that the mutations could be dangerous.
The bottom line of the research was that Balto had fewer potentially dangerous mutations than modern dog breeds, suggesting he was healthier.
“Balto had variations in genes related to things like weight, coordination, joint formation and skin thickness, which you would expect from a dog bred to run in that environment,” Moon wrote in a statement.
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