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Paläontologisches Institut

Research projects

Overview by leaders > Project detail...

Prof. Dr. Marcelo Sánchez
Domestication - an evolutionary developmental perspective
June 2016 to December 2025
Funding sources
SNF, Personen- und Projektförderung
Dr. Richard Schneider University of California at San Francisco (USA)
Prof. Walter Salzburger University of Basel (Switzerland)
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Domestication can create novel phenotypic variation, and selective breeding can produce changes otherwise occurring in geological time. Current studies on domestication concentrate on genomics. However, an ontogenetic perspective that links that approach to the developmental phenotype is also needed to understand the origin of the morphological variation of breeds and landraces not observed in the wild forebears. This project aims at investigating the developmental bases of domestication and will address the following three subjects:
- The morphospace occupation in domesticated mammals and their wild counterparts, using the skull and the inner ear as markers. The study will include new data and analyses of breeds relevant to examine the extremes of morphospace, such as the miniature horse Falabella, with some breeds mirroring human malformations, the ‘chondrodysplastic-like’ ñata cow, and middle white breed pig. The inner ear is a potential new morphological marker of domestication of relevance to zooarcheology.
- The developmental origin of morphological variation in domestication. Here the aim is to test the extent and mode in which developmental repatterning via heterochrony, changes in developmental timing - and modularity, integration and separation of parts, can serve to describe and even explain some of the differences between domesticates and their wild counterparts, and among breeds. Here different windows of ontogeny will be examined: organogenesis, early skeletogenesis, and postnatal growth.
- The role of changes in neural crest development in the origin of the ‘domestication syndrome’, a set of correlated and repeated features across domesticated species. For this, tamed and wild populations of the several species will be compared in their embryology and developmental morphology.
Sánchez-Villagra MR (2022) The Process of Animal Domestication. Princeton University Press. Purchase: Princeton University Press

Segura V, Flores D, Geiger M, Amson T, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2022) Biological and cultural history of domesticated dogs in the Americas. Anthropozoologica 57 (1)

Núñez-León D, Nagashima H, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2022) Chondrocranial variation in chicken domestication. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution. doi: 10.1002/jez.b.23177.

Herrera-Castillo CM, Geiger M, Núñez-León D, Nagashima H, Gebhardt-Henrich SG, Toscano MJ, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2022) Skeletal variation in bird domestication: limb proportions and sternum in chicken, with comparisons to mallard ducks and Muscovy ducks. PeerJ 10:e13229.

Balcarcel AM, Veitschegger K, Clauss M, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2021) Intensive human contact correlates with smaller brains: differential brain size reduction in cattle types. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences [doi: 10.1098/rspb.2021.0813]

Geiger M, Schoenebeck JJ, Schneider RA, Schmidt MJ, Fischer MS, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2021) Exceptional changes in skeletal anatomy under domestication: the case of brachycephaly. Integrative Organismal Biology 3(1):obab023

Balcarcel AM, Geiger M, Clauss M, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2021) The mammalian brain under domestication: Discovering patterns after a century of old and new analyses. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution:1-24

Wilson LAB, Balcarcel AM, Geiger M, Heck L, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2021) Modularity patterns in mammalian domestication: assessing developmental hypotheses for diversification. Evolution Letters 5:385-396

Balcarcel AM, Sánchez-Villagra MR, Segura V, Evin A (2021) Singular patterns of skull shape and brain size change in the domestication of South American camelids. Journal of Mammalogy:gyaa135

Núñez-León D, Aguirre-Fernández G; Steiner A, Nagashima H, Jensen P, Stoeckli E, Schneider RA, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2019) Morphological diversity of integumentary traits in fowl domestication: Insights from disparity analysis and embryonic development. Developmental Dynamics 248 (11):1044-1058

Heck L, Sánchez-Villagra MR, Stange M (2019) Why the long face? Comparative shape analysis of miniature, pony, and other horse skulls reveals changes in ontogenetic growth. Peerj 7:e7678

Hüppi E, Núñez-León D, Nagashima H, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2019) Development of the chondrocranium in the domesticated fowl (Gallus gallus f. domestica), with a study on the variation of the of hypoglossal foramina. Vertebrate Zoology 69 (3):299–310

Veitschegger K, Wilson LAB, Nussberger B, Camenisch G, Keller LF, Wroe S, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2018) Resurrecting Darwin’s Niata - anatomical, biomechanical, genetic, and morphometric studies of morphological novelty in cattle. Scientific Reports 8 (1):9129.

Geiger M, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2018) Similar rates of morphological evolution in domesticated and wild pigs and dogs. Frontiers in Zoology 15 (1):23.

Geiger M, Sánchez-Villagra MR, Lindholm AK (2018) A longitudinal study of phenotypic changes in early domestication of house mice. Royal Society Open Science 5 (3):172099.

Stange M, Núñez-León D, Sánchez-Villagra MR, Jensen P, Wilson LAB (2018) Morphological disparity under domestication: how variable are chicken? Royal Society Open Science 5:180993.

Heck L, Clauss M, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2018) Do domesticated mammals selected for intensive production have less variable gestation periods? Mammalian Biology 88:151-155 [doi: 10.1016/j.mambio.2017.09.004].

Heck L, Wilson LA, Evin A, Stange M, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2018) Shape variation and modularity of skull and teeth in domesticated horses and wild equids. Frontiers in Zoology 15 (1):14.

Sánchez-Villagra MR, Segura V, Geiger M, Heck L, Veitschegger K, Flores D (2017) On the lack of a universal pattern associated with mammalian domestication: differences in skull growth trajectories across phylogeny. Royal Society Open Science 4 (10):170876

Geiger M, Evin A, Sánchez-Villagra MR, Gascho D, Mainini C, Zollikofer CPE (2017) Neomorphosis and heterochrony of skull shape in dog domestication. Scientific Reports 7 (1):13443 [doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-12582-2].

Heck L, Clauss M, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2017) Gestation length variation in domesticated horses and its relation to breed and body size diversity. Mammalian Biology 84:44-51 [doi: 10.1016/j.mambio.2017.01.002].

Sánchez-Villagra MR, Geiger M, Schneider RA (2016) The taming of the neural crest: a developmental perspective on the origins of morphological covariation in domesticated mammals. Royal Society Open Science 3: 160107 [doi: 10.1098/rsos.160107].

Geiger M, Haussman S (2016) Cranial suture closure in domestic dog breeds and its relationships to skull morphology. The Anatomical Record 299(4):412-420 [doi: 10.1002/ar.23313].

Geiger M, Gendron K, Willmitzer F, Sánchez-Villagra MR (2016) Unaltered sequence of dental, skeletal, and sexual maturity in domestic dogs compared to the wolf. Zoological Letters 2:16 [doi: 10.1186/s40851-016-0055-2].