April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
When I think of a dingo, I think of a sad scene in the Tom Selleck movie, “Quigley Down Under” where the dingoes are attacking and Cora has to decide if she will repeat her mistakes, or let the aboriginal child cry. Like many of you, I’m sure, I considered them to be just another version of a coyote, no different from any other.
A new study from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Sydney, however, reveals that the dingo is a distinctly Australian animal. The findings, published in the Journal of Zoology, shed new light on the dingo’s defining physical characteristics. The research team also resurrects the name Canis dingo, which was first given to the species by German naturalist Friedrich Meyer in 1793.
The research team, led by USNW’s Dr. Mike Letnic and Dr. Mathew Crowther of the University of Sydney, explain that the confusion over whether the dingo is a distinct species began, in part, with the scientific classification of the Australian dingo, which was based on a simple drawing and description in the journal of Australia’s first governor, Arthur Phillip. This classification had no reference to a physical specimen.
Finding a specimen of a dingo that was unlikely to have bred with domestic dogs was a challenge. The team searched museum collections across Europe and the US, looking for specimens that were known, or were likely, to pre-date 1900, including those from archaeological sites.
To create a benchmark description of the dingo, the team examined 69 skull specimens and six skin specimens. They found that a relatively broad head with a long snout, and erect tail and ears, were the defining physical characteristics of the species.
“Now any wild canid – dingo, dog, or hybrid of the two – can be judged against that classification,” says Dr. Crowther, from the University of Sydney’s School of Biological Sciences.
“We can also conclusively say that the dingo is a distinctive Australian wild canid or member of the dog family in its own right, separate from dogs and wolves. The appropriate scientific classification is Canis dingo, as they appear not to be descended from wolves, are distinct from dogs and are not a subspecies.”
Dr. Letnic, from the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, comments, “Many Australians like to think that dingoes are always yellow and that animals with any other coloration are not dingoes. This is untrue.”
“One of our insights is that coat color does not define an animal as a dingo, dog or a hybrid. We found that dingoes can be tan, dark, black and tan, white, or can have the sable coloration typical of German Shepherd dogs.”
Dingoes are Australia’s largest land predator, and as such, have an important role to play in conservation. Dingoes regulate the populations of species such as kangaroos, wallabies and invasive red foxes. The clearer identification provided by this study will allow researchers to develop a sounder understanding of dingo numbers. In turn, this will improve the understanding of the dingo’s role in biodiversity.
“Distinguishing dingoes from their hybrids (cross-breeds) with feral dogs is a practical concern. Current policies in parts of Australia support the conservation of dingoes but the extermination of ‘dingo-dogs’, which are considered a major pest because they kill livestock,” says Dr. Crowther.
Genetic evidence suggests that the dingo, introduced to Australia around three to five thousand years ago, originated from East Asian domestic dogs. Until the arrival of domestic dogs with the European settlement of Australia, the dingo bred in isolation, becoming a distinct breed.
“That made distinguishing dingoes from dogs problematic, as the DNA tests and analyses of their physical structure were based on dingoes whose ancestry was not known. They were either captive animals or wild animals of uncertain ancestry,” concluded Dr. Crowther.