- By Madeline Halpert
- BBC News, New York
A new study of the mummified remains of a famous Siberian Husky has revealed the special DNA that helped the sled dog gain worldwide fame.
In 1925, Balto leads a team of sled dogs into a snowstorm to deliver life-saving medicines to an Alaskan town.
His heroic efforts are recognized in a statue of a seated dog in New York City’s Central Park.
But contrary to what the 1995 animated film Balto suggests, it wasn’t a werewolf who made it so difficult.
By comparing the Balto’s DNA to that of other dogs and mammals, the researchers found that the Siberian Husky’s more diverse genes helped it survive the grueling journey better than its descendants.
They found that Balto and his “sled-dog contemporaries were more genetically diverse than modern breeds and may have carried variants that helped them survive the harsh conditions of Alaska in the 1920s”.
The study authors took a DNA sample — provided by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which contains the mummified remains of Balto — from the dog’s belly to reconstruct its genes. They also drew on a genetic data set of 240 mammals and 682 dogs and wolves from the 21st century.
Investigation of its genes revealed “no discernible wolf ancestors,” according to the study’s authors.
According to the study, the heroic dog possesses other traits that set it apart from modern Siberian Huskies and other sled dogs of its era, including its smaller stature and better ability to digest starches.
Researchers also believe he came from a breed-less breed of huskies, which made him genetically healthier and better suited to the harsh environment of 1920s Alaska.
Balto was born in 1919 and imported from Siberia. His owner was the American Norwegian breeder Leonard Seppala.
In January 1925, an outbreak of a deadly bacterial infection, diphtheria, threatened the Alaskan town of Nome. But the only medicine available was in Anchorage, and the only plane to take it there wouldn’t start because of the freezing temperatures.
That’s where Balto and his team of sled dogs came in, hauling about 20 drivers — sled drivers — carrying the medicine for 674 miles (1,084 km) as temperatures dropped to -23 F (-31 C).
News of the historic trip spread quickly, and Balto was subsequently honored as a character in comics, children’s books, and movies, as well as in a statue at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park.
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