THE BLOG

A Man's Best Friend for 470 years

21/10/2014 10:08 BST | Updated 20/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Recently, research was published in Forensic Science International regarding the DNA of the Mary Rose's youngest crew member, the ship's dog. According to genetic material extracted from one of his teeth, the research team were able to not only confirm his gender, but also his breed and even the colour of his fur!

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It had been believed that genetics were not much use for breed identification; all dogs belong to the same species, Canis familiaris, meaning that they're all genetically similar, and can interbreed. However, comparison of thirteen short tandem repeat markers in the DNA with 169 modern dog breeds consistently assigned the dog to the Jack Russell Terrier breed. As the Jack Russell didn't exist prior to the 1850s, our dog clearly didn't belong to this breed, but one of its ancestors. Indeed, his skull and limb bones are indicative of a mongrel, which would be typical of a working dog of the time. These markers also identified that the dog was male, something which contradicted our previous claims that he was female, based on the absence of his baculum, or penis bone, which is present in most mammals (Humans being one of the many exceptions to the rule)

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Determining the fur colour was much easier, as there are single nucleotide polymorphisms that represent the three major proteins that provide colour to organic materials. The two present proteins produce a light brown colour and a darker brown. This may mean that he had patches of different colour, or he had 'brindle' fur, irregular streaks all over. More importantly, though, it means that this technique may have implications in human forensic analysis, and we can determine the hair colour of people who lived many centuries ago.

I've always felt an affinity for the ship's dog. I was the same age when the ship was raised as the dog appears to have been when the ship sank, so there's an almost spiritual connection, but I think it's mostly the palaeontologist in me being drawn towards this unique member of the crew, learning about his life from his remains.

My first real encounter with the dog was in 2010, when as part of our fundraising effort for the new Mary Rose Museum, when a small group of us took him to be displayed at Crufts. He got a lot of attention from the various breeders groups; mainly the terrier and whippet groups who were determined to identify him (although at the time we believed him to be 'her'!) as being an ancestral version of their breed. The number of vets we had brought over by groups determined to prove he was either a whippet or a terrier. Sadly for the whippet groups, most of the vets went with the terrier, which the DNA analysis has confirmed. Admittedly, he turned out to be closer to a Jack Russell terrier than the Manchester Terrier we thought was more likely at the time, but you can't win them all! I even got to appear on Crufts FM for an interview about him.

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Since then I've had a few other run-ins with the ship's dog. If you visit the Mary Rose Museum, you'll see short video in some of the cases illustrating how some of the objects are used. I play the carpenter in one of them, and so I got to appear with a rather over-excited young canine who played the dog. I think the shot we used of him is the only one where he stayed still! I've got a cuddly ship's dog who sits on my desk, acting as my 'assistant' and public face, who occasionally appears on our twitter and Instagram feeds, and who is much better behaved!

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I'm not the only one who's become attached to our dog (or 'Hatch', as he's become known). Visitors often take the death of 500 men in their stride, but the sight of the poor dog is what elicits the most "Awwww"s". Truly we are still a nation of animal lovers. He's also made his way into merchandise; as well as the obligatory cuddly toy, there's guide books, key rings, papercraft models, he even has his own Top Trump cards (Fame factor of 99!).

'Hatch' may have been a simple mongrel, catching rats on a warship he probably never stepped foot off during his life, but since his rediscovery he's found a new place in the world, in the hearts of all our visitors.