The tale of the wagging tail: Arts and Sciences fellow looks for behavioral evidence in bones to tell story of modern dogs

14 undergraduates awarded fellowships to do summer research

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Kate Fish
Kate Fish ’20, a URI major in anthropology and biology, measures canid bones at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as part of her summer fellowship from the College of Arts and Sciences. Photo courtesy of Kate Fish.

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 30, 2019 – Dogs wag their tails. It’s the classic way we tell if Fido is happy. But does that behavior separate your mutt from a wolf or a coyote?

Kate Fish, a University of Rhode Island junior majoring in anthropology and biology, is testing that theory as she investigates a new method to morphologically distinguish domestic dogs from wild canids, the family of dogs that includes domesticated dogs along with wolves, coyotes, foxes and jackals.

“As it stands now, the literature is focused on cranial remains of these animals and using cranial and dental morphology to determine what makes a domestic dog different from wild canids,” says the Clifton Park, New York, resident. “I’m trying to find a distinguishing feature to use for the postcranial skeleton.”

Fish is one of 14 undergraduates to earn summer fellowships from the URI College of Arts and Sciences. In its second year, the fellowship awarded about $25,000 in grants supporting about 2,300 hours of research in disciplines from computer science to chemistry, anthropology to English, and film studies to criminology. (See below for a list of this summer’s recipients.)

This is Fish’s second summer fellowship for the project, and it has enabled her to spend summer break at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, examining the skeletons of domestic and wild canids, comparing the bones that play a part in tail posture and tail wagging.

The story of modern dogs is a hot topic, says URI Anthropology Professor Holly Dunsworth, Fish’s faculty mentor. While there is some scientific debate on the origins of modern dogs, it’s commonly agreed that they were domesticated about 40,000 years ago.

“Dogs are a major factor in human evolution,” says Dunsworth. “We co-created each other, in a way. It’s not just that we domesticated them. They’re the earliest domesticated animal. And they were involved in their own domestication. It wouldn’t have happened without them being open to working with us.”

To determine whether a canid skeleton was a domesticated dog, researchers have turned to genetic data, along with the examination of the canid’s skull and teeth. But Fish’s study on postcranial identification would add a new tool for researchers at archaeological sites who come across a canid skeleton that is missing its skull, or it could supplement cranial analysis.

“According to the published literature,” says Dunsworth, “Kate’s the first person to investigate a link to tail behavior.”

Fish became interested in bones in her early teens after watching the TV show “Bones,” a crime drama about a forensic anthropologist. It started her thinking about the complexity of the human skeleton. “When I’m working in a room full of skeletons,” she says, “I feel like I am right where I am supposed to be.”

That fascination with bones forged a bond with Dunsworth and sparked Fish’s research in canid skeletons.

Fish was working as a research assistant for Dunsworth a couple of years ago when crews cleaning the attic in Ranger Hall on the Kingston campus uncovered a cache of animal skeletons. Fish’s job was to clean the skeletons, identify them and prepare them for proper storage. But many of the skeletons were missing their skulls.

“The head is the easiest way to identify an animal,” says Dunsworth. “If you have the head of a dog, you know you have a dog. If you have the head of a wolf, you know you have a wolf, or a pig, or whatever.”

Among the postcranial skeletons was a canid. Lacking its head, Dunsworth and Fish could not determine if the skeleton was from a domesticated canid. That got them thinking. How else could you determine if it was domesticated? What distinguishes a wolf or coyote from Fifi?

“I started thinking about tail wagging as a habitual behavior in domestic dogs,” says Fish. “While wolves do wag their tails, it is not a habitual behavior as it is for domestic dogs, who are constantly communicating this way in their lives with humans. This habitual behavior throughout a dog’s life could influence the development of the skeleton just as habitual tennis playing from a young age will influence the morphology of the racquet-wielding arm.”

To test the theory, Fish identified the muscles involved in tail posture and wagging and where those muscles attached to the skeleton (the pelvis, sacrum and caudal vertebrae). She designed measurements to compare differences in those areas in domesticated and wild canids.

This summer, Fish measured the bones of 87 skeletons from seven canid species, following up similar work last summer at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. She’s looked at skeletons, large and small – multiple dog breeds and wild canids from wolves to foxes – to make allowances for size. She’s also examined skeletons for signs of osteoarthritis, following an assumption that domestic dogs could be prone to arthritis from habitual tail wagging.

At the same time, she is doing preliminary analysis using Excel to run statistics and create graphs to visualize differences. This fall, she will take a high-level statistics course to learn how to analyze the data using a coding language.

“I still have a lot of data to analyze,” says Fish, “but with what I have done so far, I am seeing marginal differences in the bone anatomy that could verify my belief about tail wagging. I am still working on the significance of these differences.”

If her theory plays out, Fish plans to write a research paper and submit it for publication, and eventually her research could lead to behavioral research to further support the theory.

Growing up, Fish didn’t have a dog. She wanted one so badly, she says, she again lobbied her parents after her sister went off to college. But she’s had to make do with friends who have dogs.

“Now that I’m studying them,” she says, “I find myself watching how their tails move and thinking about their evolutionary history.”

Other 2019 Arts & Science Fellows are:

Alex Berezovsky ’19, of Pawtucket, R.I., a computer science major; Shejar Sadhu ’20, of New Delhi, India, a major in computer science and data science. Collaborating on research to discover a way to categorize protein sequences more efficiently. Faculty mentor: Professor Noah Daniels.

Paige Carmichael ‘20, of Warwick, R.I., an economics major and two-time recipient of the fellowship. Researching how gender affects behaviors around different resources, such as money and time. Faculty mentor: Professor Smita Ramnarain.

Cameron Garvey ’20, of West Warwick, R.I., who is majoring in history and anthropology. Compiling an archaeological history of Kingston campus grounds before the founding of the University, using historical archaeological, geological, topographical and environmental information. Faculty mentor: Professor Kristine Bovy.

Leah Hopkins ’19, of North Providence, R.I., a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and an anthropology major. Researching the story of the Ninnimissinunuwok whalers – men who hailed from Indigenous communities of southern New England and Long Island, N.Y., including from Narragansett, Wampanoag, Pequot and Mohegan tribes – through a review of relevant literature and museums, among other resources. Faculty mentor: Professor Martha Elena Rojas.

Jon Howe ‘20, of Scituate, R.I., who is majoring in music with a concentration in composition. Writing a full orchestra composition of a tone poem (a story or painting set to music) on a folk tale of a person’s experience with the mythical Dullahan, a headless rider. Faculty mentor: Lecturer Kirsten Volness.

Tom Lenehan ’21, of Shrewsbury, Mass., who is majoring in chemistry. Developing a new way to mitigate the effects of hazardous chemical spills; an early version received a provisional patent. Faculty mentor: Professor Jimmie Oxley.

Adelaide Levenson ’21, of Woonsocket, R.I., who is majoring in chemistry. Conducting research to detect potentially toxic cations (positively charged ions) and making a dual-detection system for anions (negatively charged ions). Faculty mentor: Professor Mindy Levine.

Aria Mia Loberti ’20, of Johnston, R.I., who is majoring in philosophy, communication studies and political science. Researching social belonging in higher education for underrepresented minority students, specifically focusing on narratives depicting the experiences of African-American men at elite institutions. Faculty mentor: Professor Jeremiah Dyehouse.

Lucas McCulloch ’21, of Providence, R.I., who is majoring in economics. Researching how family accommodative policies, such as maternity leave and subsidized childcare, affect labor market outcomes of women in the U.S. and Scandinavia. Faculty mentor: Professor Smita Ramnarain.

Kayla Michaud ’21, of Billerica, Mass., major in film and journalism. Working on a documentary that will provide a deeper understanding of autism spectrum disorder and effects on families with a relative with autism. Faculty mentor: Professor Kendall Moore.

Sophia Munoz ’20, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., a major in English and secondary education. Researching the confusion of terms designating non-tenure track faculty in the U.S., which prevents an understanding of working conditions and compensation. Faculty mentor: Professor Carolyn Betensky.

Jacqueline Rapisardi ’21, of Massapequa, N.Y., an English major. Researching the opportunities allotted to women within higher education in the 20th century. Faculty mentor: Professor Scott Kushner.