Salmon was critical to sled dogs’ diet in 17th century

Working dog teams consumed Chinook, sockeye, coho and chum

A University of British Columbia report based on research into ancient frozen canine feces confirms that salmon was an important part of Arctic sled dog diets at least 300 years ago.

The so-called “paleofeces” dating back at least 300 years were found frozen in permafrost at the Nunalleq archaeological site, near Quinhagak, Alaska. The paleofeces were so well preserved that odor was present when the feces were broken in half, researchers said.

The new information about the diets of Arctic sled dogs and their relationship to people could help scientists better understand our ancestors and what they fed their dogs, as well as how dogs’ gastrointestinal health has evolved, said UBC anthropologist Camila Speller, senior author of the study published July 7 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

“The recovered proteins reveal that the sled dogs consumed muscle, bone, intestines and roe from a range of salmon species including Chinook, sockeye, coho and chum,” Speller said.

The interactions of these dogs with humans have only recently become a subject of interest to archaeologists, said lead researcher Anne Kathrine Wiborg Runge, a doctoral student at the University of York.

 “In the Arctic, dogs rely exclusively on humans for food during the winter, but deciphering the details of provisioning strategies has been challenging,” said Wiborg Runge. While these dogs may have been fed differently or less frequently in summer, or even let loose to fend for themselves, working sled dogs are a particularly expensive resource. They require up to 3.2 kilograms of fish or meat every day and provisioning of dogs would have played a significant role in the food procurement strategies of past Arctic culture, she said.

Researchers used a technique known as paleoproteomics, based on tandem mass spectrometry to recover proteins from the fecal samples. Proteomics can provide insight into which tissues the proteins originated from and makes it possible to identify which parts of animals were consumed.

Complementary analyses were performed with zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry, an analytical approach pioneered at the University of York, on bone fragments recovered from within the paleofeces. This technique uses the collagen protein preserved in archaeological and historic artifacts to identify the species from which it derives.

The University of York, University of Copenhagen, University of Aberdeen and the Qanirtuuq Incorporated, an Alaska Native village corporation in Quinhagak, were also part of the research project, which was funded by EU Horizon 2020, Danish National Research Foundation and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.