May 15, 2023 - News

Balto, a true Cleveland icon, contributing to science

Look at this Cleveland king. WHO'S A GOOD BOY!?!?! Photo: Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Natural History

The iconic sled dog Balto is commonly thought of as a Siberian husky and has even been mythologized as being part wolf, but a study published last month in "Science" found he was more genetically diverse than most modern breeds.

Why it matters: Balto's DNA was one of dozens of samples provided by more than 50 institutions and compiled by the Zoonomia Project to study genetic traits in mammals.

What they're saying: In addition to Siberian husky, "Balto also had ancestry related to several other living dog lineages, including Alaskan sled dogs, village dogs, Greenland dogs and Tibetan mastiffs," said Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

  • This genetic diversity likely made him a "hardier canine," well adapted to extreme Alaskan environments, the research found.

Catch up quick: Balto gained worldwide fame in 1925 for the "Serum Run," in which 20 sled dog teams sprinted over 700 grueling miles to deliver diphtheria medication to sick children in remote Nome, Alaska.

Zoom in: Clevelanders raised $1,500 to purchase Balto and six members of his team from a "dime museum" in Los Angeles, where they'd been malnourished and mistreated following a U.S. tour.

  • Balto spent his final years (1927-1933) in Cleveland, dying naturally at age 14.

What's next: A taxidermied mount of Balto is not on display during the museum's $150 million renovation and expansion, but once work has been completed he will be featured in a new 50,000-square-foot visitors hall.

The bottom line: "Preserving Balto's legacy is something we take very seriously," Sonia Winner, the museum's president and CEO, said in a press release.

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