Shaggy fur, an important job and a link to an extinct breed: Meet a dog breed you've never heard of

Sheepdogs were brought from the UK to South America to herd sheep.

(CNN)Tucked between the Chilean coast and Patagonian mountains lives a small population of sheepdogs, which exists only in that region and in small numbers of only about a few hundred total.

These rare herding dogs are not just cute and not just fluffy -- though they certainly are those things, too -- they are also providing important genetic information as the closest living relatives of an extinct sheepdog ancestor, according to research published Thursday in the journal PLOS Genetics.
"What the work shows is that these dogs are closely related to what would be considered the original UK herding dogs, which are not alive on the planet anymore," said senior study author Elaine Ostrander, chief investigator at the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute. "It's telling us that 'Hey, these guys are really special.'
    "They are something that is a missing link between modern breeds and the original herding breeds from Western Europe."
      They aren't a breed in the sense that you could register one with a society or find them at a dog show, Ostrander said. But when looking at both the visible and genetic traits, she said it was clear that these dogs shared enough similarities, like their medium build, shaggy fur and specific range of colors, to be classified together.
      The research is exciting and can "give us a picture of what dogs were like prior to the establishment of modern breeds," said Jeffrey Kidd, associate professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan. Kidd was not involved in the research.
      Ostrander and her colleagues were sent genetic samples from partners in Chile, and after comparing them with 175 breeds of European and Western descent, they found that the Patagonian dogs were the most closely related modern dog to what is considered the original sheepdog, from the UK.
        "Because they are isolated, they retain whatever genetics was in their ancestor and great ancestors," Ostrander said. "The Patagonian sheepdog comes the closest to anything anyone has ever seen and that's what makes them so fascinating."
        A small population of sheepdogs in Patagonia is genetically the closest to what is considered the original sheepdog.

        Moving across the world

        How did the genes of UK sheepdogs come to live and last half a world away in South America?
        "These dogs were brought over from the UK at a time point before the breeds that we know today were really split out and isolated," said study coauthor Dayna Dreger, staff scientist at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
        In the 19th century, officials in South America aiming to improve farming and agriculture looked to sheep farming, which they saw as a promising industry given the geography and climate, Dreger said.