DNA Study Reveals New Insight About Balto, the Legendary Sled Dog

Photo of Balto the Sled Dog

Photo of sled dog Balto with Gunnar Kaasen, c. 1925 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

There are few dogs who can claim the same legendary status as Balto. As a member of a historic 1925 sled dog expedition, he helped deliver medicine to combat diphtheria, traveling all the way from Anchorage to the small town of Nome—a total of over 600 miles. Although there were over 150 other dogs involved in the life-saving dispatch, Balto's name is the only one that has lived on, as he was the leader during the last 53 miles. Now, scientists are delving back into the past to uncover possible reasons for his incredible athleticism.

When Balto died in 1933, his remains were taxidermied and donated to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This decision made it possible for researchers to examine his DNA and learn more about his genetic makeup and compare it to modern sled dogs. And while the eponymous 1995 animated film promoted the idea that Balto was half-wolf, his genes reveal that he was a 100% domesticated dog. His DNA was analyzed with 135 different breeds, ultimately revealing that the heroic pup was related to Siberian husky and sled dogs from Alaska and Greenland. Three breeds that are well adapted for life in the snow.

In addition to analyzing Balto's DNA with other dogs, it was also compared with 240 other mammals to help identify which DNA fragments have not changed over millions of years. Due to their longevity over so centuries, those fragments are considered essential and stable, while mutations are potentially dangerous. As it happened, Balto's genetics showed that his DNA was more stable than modern breeds of dogs, suggesting that he was healthier. “Balto had variants in genes related to things like weight, coordination, joint formation, and skin thickness, which you would expect for a dog bred to run in that environment,” one of the scientists, Katherine Moon, says.

Whatever his secret was, Balto helped save many young people's lives, so his legendary status lives on.

A new study analyzes the genetic makeup of the legendary sled dog Balto, revealing that he was healthier than many modern dog breeds.

Balto's Statue in NYC

Statue of Balto by Frederick Roth, NYC (Photo: [email protected]/Depositphotos)

h/t: [CBS News]

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Margherita Cole

Margherita Cole is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and illustrator based in Southern California. She holds a BA in Art History with a minor in Studio Art from Wofford College, and an MA in Illustration: Authorial Practice from Falmouth University in the UK. She wrote and illustrated an instructional art book about how to draw cartoons titled 'Cartooning Made Easy: Circle, Triangle, Square' that was published by Walter Foster in 2022.
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