300-year-old dog feces, so well preserved that 'odour was present,' hints relationship with humans

Dog paleofeces is shown in an image provided by the University of British Columbia. (Katharina Dulias)

A sample of frozen dog feces is giving researchers an idea of what the relationship between canines and humans was like in the 17th century.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia say the feces reveals what Arctic sled dogs ate, information that may help scientists understand how dogs were treated by humans at the time.

It may also help to determine how dogs' gastrointestinal health has evolved, according to UBC anthropologist Camilla Speller.

Speller is the senior author of an international study released Wednesday on the research. The study was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

In a news release from the university, Speller said proteins were extracted from the fecal sample – a process undertaken for the first time ever.

"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.

Despite being 300 years old, the sample of what UBC researchers call "paleofeces" was so well preserved in Arctic permafrost in Alaska that, as described in a news release, "odour was present when the feces were broken in half."

A lead researcher on the study, PhD student Anne Katherine Wiborg Runge, said it's only recently that the canine-human relationship has become a topic of interest for those in the field.

"In the Arctic, dogs rely exclusively on humans for food during the winter but deciphering the details of provisioning strategies has been challenging," the student from the University of York said in a statement.

She said salmon eggs suggest the feces was "deposited" in the summer.

"The dogs may have been fed differently or less frequently in summer, or been let loose to fend for themselves," Wiborg Runge said. "Working sled dogs are a particularly expensive resource, requiring up to 3.2 kg of fish or meat every day and provisioning of dogs would therefore have played a significant role in the food procurement strategies of past Arctic culture."