Scientists decode the DNA of the legendary dog Balto: it was not found to be of wolf origin

In February 1919, in the small town of Nome, Alaska, a Siberian husky puppy was born, named Balto after the Norwegian explorer Samuel Balto. The puppy quickly grew up and, like most dogs in Alaska, he was trained to walk in a sled.

In the winter of 1925, when the dog was six years old, an epidemic of diphtheria, a dangerous infectious disease, broke out in Nome. The only thing that could save the city was the anti-diphtheria serum, which had to be brought from Anchorage, which was literally a thousand miles away. Unfortunately, a massive snowstorm broke out at that very moment, preventing the use of aircraft. The serum was delivered by train to the town of Nenana, and the rest of the way the medicine had to be transported by dog sled.

Gunnar Kaasen, a gold miner, carried the serum for the last 52 kilometers. There were not enough dogs, so Gunnar put the inexperienced Balto at the head of the sled. The way was incredibly difficult: the dogs almost died crossing the river, the sledge overturned several times, and the snowstorm intensified so much that Kaasen could hardly move his own fingers. In spite of this, Balto navigated perfectly in the blinding snow and led the sled to Nome. The serum froze, but did not go bad, and with it the diphtheria in the city was stopped in five days.

Balto and Gunnar Kaasen were immediately recognized as heroes. A statue of Balto was erected in New York City’s Central Park, the funds for which were raised by voluntary donations.

Balto lived 14 years and died in 1933.

In April 2023, American geneticists decided to investigate the genetic code of the heroic dog. To do this, they asked the museum for a small fragment of the stuffed animal — enough to sequence the DNA. After studying the material, the scientists came to some interesting conclusions. First, it was definitely established that the dog was coal-black in color with small white spots on the chest and paws.

Secondly, it turned out that Balto looked very different from the modern Siberian Husky: he was smaller and in many ways resembled a mongrel.

In general, he belonged to the sled dog population, which was more «genetically healthy» than modern dogs, due to a smaller number of rare and potentially dangerous variations in the genes. Balto had stronger bones and stronger joints, his stomach had no problem digesting food containing large amounts of starch, and most importantly, his coat consisted of two layers: an insulating undercoat of short, thick hair and an upper layer of longer tufts. All this undoubtedly helped Balto to overcome the difficult long journey and save the city from the epidemic.

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