Posts Tagged ‘dingo’


Most readers of this blog know that I tend to be a lumper when it comes to the gray wolf species complex. I generally think we have one phenotypically and behavioral plastic species that has been able to adapt to many different ecosystems, and this plasticity is even more exaggerated in the domestic form.

When it comes to the dingo, the New Guinea singing dog, the New Guinea Highland dog, or the various mid-sized primitive dogs of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, I think the best way to understand what they are is just regional forms of a dog that has existed at varying levels of domestication.  Every major genetic study that includes “pure” Australian dingoes places them within a clade that includes chow chows and other East Asian breeds, and it seems me that the best way to classify dingoes is as primitive domestic dogs. Yes, I call into question the current thinking that there is a Canis lupus dingo, and I feel they would better be classified as as a feral Canis lupus familiaris.

In the past week, I’ve seen a few posts situating a “dingo” species. This one is not based upon the faulty “unique morphology” paper that came out a few years ago. When I first read that study, I instantly thought  of Edward Drinker Cope declaring the Japanese chin a distinct species because it tended to lack the number of teeth of normal domestic dogs.

This new “dingo is a species” comes from a paper that says they are geographically isolated from other dog species and have lived in the wild for many generations.  Well, they aren’t genetically isolated from domestic dogs now, and they didn’t read the paper that said they were a new species and should only mate with other dingoes. That’s why Australia is full of mixed dingoes now.

I do think a case can be made that dingoes should now be regarded as native fauna. They have been in Australia for 3,500-4,000 years, and whatever ecological problems they may have caused, they pretty much already done it.

We know that native Australian animals have an innate fear of dogs, probably because they have spent the past 4,000 years as prey for dingoes.  And there is evidence that dingoes hold back feral cat and red fox populations to allow various small native fauna species to survive.  But everyone agrees, of course, this complex issue requires quite a bit more study.

So although I think this grasping at straws to make the dingo a species is pretty silly, I do think a good case can be made that dingoes are native.

I think Australia’s wildlife culture needs to have its own unique predator at the top of its ecosystem. The problem is all they have now is this feral dog, which certainly does do a good job as a top predator. But it’s not a Thylacoleo carnifex or even a Thylacine.  This same general type of feral dog can be found throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia, which means it is not exactly an Australian endemic.

Australians also don’t have any other canids other than red foxes with which to deal on a a regular basis.  In the US, we see coyotes that are clearly admixed with domestic dogs, and in Eurasia, dogs and gray wolves exchange genes at a much higher rate than we once thought.

When all you have are dingoes, it’s hard to think of the big picture of Canis taxonomy. The genetic difference between a regular domestic dog and a dingo is smaller than the genetic difference between a regular domestic dog and a coyote. And that difference is apparently much smaller than we initially thought, too.

So if you read that dingoes are a species, no new evidence has been revealed to call for their species status. It’s just simply a rearranging of species definition that honestly don’t hold up to much scrutiny from a cladistic approach.

Saying that dingoes are a species is sure to get headlines. But it’s on the level of the “Birds are not dinosaurs” school of cranks, which I find has direct parallels in the “Dogs are not wolves school” of similar cranks.

I’ve discovered in all my years of trying to educate people about evolution that people have a very hard time thinking cladistically. Engaging in this sort of nonsense makes the reasoning behind cladistic classification as both an explanation for evolution and something that would be expected in light of evolution that much more difficult.

So stick to clades. And stop playing games by trying to turn an interesting local dog into a species.

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new guinea dingo

One of the most annoying things about “dog people” is the constant jockeying for the prize of the “most ancient breed of dog.”  If you watch Westminster on television, I would say a third of the breeds are described as “ancient.”

Most of them aren’t that old, and even if they do resemble ancient forms of domestic dog, the modern day representative often has very little genetic connection to them.

So it was with jaundiced eyes when I saw the latest headline that “The world’s rarest and most ancient dog was discovered in the wild.”  The headline is clickbait, of course, because most people don’t have a clue about what was actually found.

Some camera traps caught images of a type of dingo called the “New Guinea Highland Dog,” which is a new name for the “New Guinea Singing Dog.”  It is a dingo that lives a semi-feral existence in the highlands of New Guinea. Note that I said “semi-feral,” because different indigenous groups in New Guinea have used these dogs and their descendants for hunting.  It lives in the wild, but it can be tamed.

Genetically, these animals are not vastly different from Australian dingoes, which lived in much the same way.  They could breed in the wild, but indigenous people used them to hunt things like tree kangaroos.

These dogs exist where there are no wolves and are found in cultures that are mostly involved in hunter-gatherer societies. These animals might give us a window into how hunter-gatherer people in the Paleolithic may have related toward wolves and perhaps give us an insight onto how domestication may have occurred.

But the problem with these dogs is that there are fantastical claims about them. When someone says this is “the most ancient breed of dog” one needs to understand something. The most complete genetic studies we have on dogs have revealed that this type of thinking is quite flawed. One of the big problems is that no domestic dog is more closely related to wolves than any other. The only exception are dogs that have actual modern wolf ancestry.

Dogs are derived from an extinct population of wolves, and yes, a recent genome comparison study says we have to call this ancestor “a wolf” if we are to adhere to cladistic classification.  The reason is that dogs split off from Eurasian wolves at about the same time Eurasian wolves split from North American wolves.

genome comparis fan wolves and dogs

Arbitrarily declaring dogs and dingoes a species makes the entire Canis lupus species paraphyletic, according to Fan et al.

Dingoes are commonly used in genetic studies about dogs and wolves. When compared to a large number of samples of different breeds and different wolves, they almost always group with East Asian domestic dogs, as this dingo did with a Chinese street dog.

Another study, which found initially reported dogs originating the Middle East (but has since been retracted in light of more recent evidence), also found that dingoes fit with East Asian domestic dogs.

dingoes fit with domestic dogs wayne

It is well-known that New Guinea dingo-type dogs can be recognized as dingoes using a genetic test that looks for only certain dingo markers.

So the animal that was found in the New Guinea Highlands is a dingo, and a dingo is an East Asian domestic dog that has gone feral.

Now, about the question of this dog being “the most ancient.”

One of the problems with saying a breed is the most ancient, as I pointed out before,  is that no breed of dog is more close to modern wolves than any other, and the other major problem with saying a breed is ancient using genetic studies is that many of these so-called “ancient breeds” are actually just populations of domestic dog that have been isolated from the main swarm of dogs. This gives a “breed-like” isolation that confers upon it some antiquity that really doesn’t exist.

Thus, we really can’t say that a breed is the “most ancient,” even with genetic studies.

What I think is more interesting in regard to dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs is that they represent a different permutation of domestication than the bulk of domestic dogs.

Domestication is a cultural process as well as biological. The vast majority of dogs in the world today are street and village dogs, which are very easily tamed if captured at the right age. This is the permutation of dog domestication that arose after the Neolithic Revolution, and it is still the rule when dealing with societies that have not engaged in extensive selective breeding for working characteristics in domestic dogs.  We also have a permutation in which free-roaming and freely breeding livestock guardian dogs accompany herds across grazing lands. Any dogs that show aggression towards stock are driven off or killed. Another permutation, which is older than either of these two, are the people who actually rely upon their dogs as hunters. Here, I am thinking of the laikas of Russia, which are used to bay up boar and moose and tree gamebirds and furbearers in much the same way the Jōmon relied upon their hunting dogs for survival.

The Western permutation of dog domestication has been to breed many specialized dog breeds and types. We’ve selected for much higher levels of biddability in some of our dogs. We’ve bred out quite a bit of aggression and predatory behavior. We’ve accentuated certain predatory behaviors, like pointing and retrieving, and we’ve produced dogs that look you right in the eye for approval.

Western dogs have been removed very much from wolves, and from our perspective, it looks like the dogs of different cultures are more ancient than our own. But that’s from our perspective. Our own Eurocentric perspective.

For example, the indigenous people of the Americas were very much involved in producing specialized dog breeds. The Salish bred their own wool dogs.  The Tahltan bear dog actually was used to hunt bears, even though it was quite small.  The hairless trait that exists in most hairless dogs actually originated in Pre-Columbian Mexico.

The truth is people all over the world have produced dog breeds and types that are distinct. The various forms of dingo that exist in Australasia are exactly the sort of dogs that would occur in hunter-gatherer societies that were not engaged in the selective breeding of working animals. Instead, they are societies that relied upon feral dogs to provide their own hunting dogs, which often reverted back to the feral existence once they hit breeding age.

This is not the permutation of Western dog domestication at all, and because it resembles the ancient way man may have related to wolves, a lot gets read into these dogs.

These dogs aren’t more or less ancient than any other dog on the planet, but they are dogs that give us a glimpse of what might have been.

That is the amazing story.

But, of course, dog people can’t leave an amazing story to be told on its own, so claims about these dogs are made that simply aren’t backed up by serious inquiry and scholarship.

Unfortunately, we’re always going to be dealing with these sorts of clickbait stories about ancient feral dogs, but that’s not what the genetic studies are revealing. And it is quite sad that we’re still dealing with the erroneous Canis hallstromi classification for the New Guinea dingo, as well as its attendant “dogs are not wolves” hypothesis, which has been as thoroughly debunked as the “birds are not dinosaurs” hypothesis.

So it is interesting that the New Guinea dingo still roams in the Highlands,  but I wish peole would be very careful of clickbait canid taxonomy.






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Taxidermy taxonomy fail

ethiopian wolf taxidermy

This taxidermy was being sold as a dingo:

We rarely come across dingo taxidermy mounts and are proud to carry great specimens at a great price. The dingo is a free-roaming dog mainly found on the continent of Australia. The dingo has several names in both scientific and non-scientific literature, like of which the word “dingo” is the most common term, but also include “dingoe” and “wild dog”. Who do you know that has a Dingo? Want one? Sign up for our Wish List!

The big problem is that this specimen is not a dingo!

In fact, it’s something even rarer than a dingo, which is a feral domestic dog.

It is an Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which is a critically endangered canid that is found in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Because it’s such an endangered species,  the legality of selling such a specimen is certainly suspect, and it’s certainly worth a lot more than an old dingo mount.

But this isn’t the first taxidermy taxonomy fail I’ve covered on this blog. A few years ago, I went after an ad that was selling a gray fox taxidermy as a kit fox.

One would think that people who deal with these sorts of specimens would have an idea about the exact identity of the creatures that it is selling.

But I guess not.




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New guinea singing dog in the wild

The photo above clearly beats my thylacine photo from yesterday.

It is supposed to be the first photograph of a New Guinea singing dog in the wild.

There are some problems with this assertion.

One of them is the animal in the photo appears to have the brown-skinned trait.  All the ones in captivity, which are supposedly pure and derived from “wild” ones, have black skin.

That means that this animal likely has some Western dog blood.

The other thing is the New Guinea singing dog isn’t really what people thin it is.

For decades, there were many otherwise rational people who swore that this was a unique species. If you dig through texts from even just twenty years ago, you’ll find people promoting Canis hallstromi. It was later found, when the DNA was examined, that the New Guinea singing dog was a subset of dingo.

Dingoes are not a unique species. They are not ancestors of domestic dogs, and they are not the missing link between wolves and domestic dogs. They are feral dogs with a Southeast Asian derivation.

That’s all a New Guinea singing dog is.

What’s more the indigenous people of New Guinea have kept dogs like this for thousands of years. They’ve been modified through selection and the introduction of Western blood, but they readily admit that their dogs are derived from that “wild” source. The New Guinea singing dog as a landrace isn’t rare or going extinct. It’s just the purely feral form that is.

Indeed, if people were actually wanting to ‘save” the New Guinea singing dog, they’d use the blood from these hunting dogs.

But no, that would make too much sense, and it would also take away from their mystique as being the “wild dog of New Guinea.”

Of course, they’re going to say that the village dogs have Western blood in them, but if this photo is being used to claim that this is a wild New Guinea singing dog, then that argument simply holds no water.

Like its relatives in Australia, the New Guinea dingo (which is its more appropriate name) has incorporated the blood of other dogs into its gene pool, which isn’t really all that crazy. If you turned a bunch of domestic dogs from “rare, genetically distinct” breeds loose and let them freely breed, they’d probably incorporate a lot of German shepherd, Labrador, beagle, and pit bull blood into their gene pools.

Dogs have never voluntarily sequestered their genes. They didn’t do it for thousands upon thousands of years. It’s really only been in the West for the past few centuries that people have gotten of on contriving morphologically distinct populations into things we call breeds.

It’s that same sort of thinking that suggests we can save the New Guinea singing dog and the dingo as pure entities.

They simply cannot.

I find some of the obsession that New Guinea singing dog enthusiasts give to this animal to be somewhat disconcerting.

It’s a feral animal.

It’s interesting as a landrace and a subset of dingo.

But it’s still a dog.

It’s not a unique species of any sort.

If you want to impress me, get me some photos of Sir David’s long-beaked echidna of Indonesia Papua Province on the island of New Guinea. It’s a very endangered species of monotreme that was only described to science. It was only described to science in 1961, and it was named for Sir David Attenborough.  No one has seen one in the wild for decades.

Sir David’s long-beaked echidna actually is a very rare species. It actually is endemic to just a tiny part of New Guinea.

I would love to see photos of a wild one.

It’s not a feral dog.

It’s not a dingo.

It’s actually something that could be found only in a remote part of New Guinea.

But then it’s not a dog or a “wolf,” so it’s much harder to get people to get worked up about it.

How amazingly fickle are humans.

We lose our minds over a photo of a feral dog, but we seem to forget that the island of New Guinea has lots of really unique wildlife, much of it quite critically endangered.

But Western man’s cultural biases in favor of dogs and wolves make us worry about the local breed of bush mongrel instead.

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Female mainland thylacines that were living during the Holocene (skull at far left) were much smaller than dingoes from the same time period (skull at far right). This size difference means that dingoes could be effective predators of female thylacines on the mainland and could have been a cause of their extinction.

Thylacines went extinct on the mainland of Australia before European colonization.

They were around on Tasmania up until the twentieth century.

After the Thylacoleo (“marsupial lion”) species became extinct some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, the thylacines were the largest marsupial carnivores.

And the largest terrestrial predators in Australia. The saltwater crocodiles clearly had them licked, but outside of riparian and coastal areas and in the southern part of the continent, the thylacine was the top “dog.”

However, the reason why the thylacine disappeared from the mainland has been up to conjecture.

Several hypotheses have been propsed.  Almost all involve some discussion of the dingo’s arrival on the continent– a date that is not exactly clear in either the genetic or paleontology literature.

The initial hypothesis was that dingoes simply outcompeted thylacines. Dingoes hunted in packs, and what’s more, as variants of domestic dogs, they would have had a very close relationship with humans.

Pretty much every study about thylacines has made comparisons with those that were in Tasmania during historical times.

These thylacines weighed as much as 70 pounds, and because we have historical accounts a thylacin splitting the skulls of a bull terrier with its jaaws,  it assumes they would have been a match for even a pack of dingoes that included individuals that weighed 30 to 45 pounds. (There is, however, some recent recent research that suggest thylacines had structurally quite weak jaws, so they may not have been all that effective in a combat situation with a mid-sized dog).

However, this is a bit of an unfair comparison.

If one assumes that thylacines that on the mainland when dingoes arrived were exactly like the ones in Tasamania, then it becomes more difficult to see how dingoes could have dominated them. Only by allowing for the dingo’s advantages– such as its association with people, who were on the increase throughout the continent, and the dingo’s pack hunting behavior which allowed it access to wider variety of prey– can we see how a dingo would have dominated the thylacine on the mainland.

However,  a recent study was just published in PLoS One.  In this study, researchers examined the body and skull size thylacine and dingo remains from Nullarbor Plain and the southwestern part of Western Australia that were dated to the early Holocene.

The results revealed something amazing.

Dingoes of that time were quite a bit larger and heavier than mainland thylacine.  The researchers found:

The smallest thylacines were 19.2% and 28.2% smaller than the smallest dingoes in the Nullarbor and southwest, respectively. The largest dingoes were estimated to be 36.8% and 54.1% heavier than the smallest thylacines in the Nullarbor and southwest, respectively.

If thylacines on the mainland were typically that much smaller than dingoes, then they certainly would have been killed by dingoes.

Dingoes are derived from domestic dogs, which are derived from wolves, and we know that wolves kill jackals and coyotes where their ranges overlap.

In fact, canids  in general will kill predators that are smaller than themselves.  Red foxes kill arctic foxes. Coyotes kill red foxes.

Even today, dingoes are effective at controlling fox numbers in Australia.

So it is very possible that larger dingoes were killing thylacines.

The authors of the recent study suggest that the smaller thylacines were female, and unlike Tasmanian thylacines, these mainland individuals had significant sexual dimorphism.

If the dingoes could easily kill these smaller ones, then they were likely killing many female thylacines, and without females, the population could not be sustained.

Of course, the authors point out that all of these relationships were likely much more complex than can be concluded through simple morphological studies.

Dingoes, as feral and semi-domesticated dogs, were attached to people, and the time in which thylacines became extinct is associated with a population increase among indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians were using fire to manage lands in order to create landscapes that were filled with prey species. They may have even been using the dingoes as hunting dogs, which would make it much easier for them to catch prey.

And if people were doing well, the dingoes likely were, too.  And if the dingoes were doing well, they could have been competing with thylacines for prey.

If their jaw structure meant that thylacines were reduced to preying on smaller animals, dingoes would have had an advantage.  They could hunt larger macropods that were out of the thylacine’s grasp, and they could very easily attack the same prey that thylacines were relying upon.

And if they were also killing thylacines, this would have been very bad for them.

After the extinction of the marsupial lions, the thylacine was the only predatory mammal of any size in Australia.

It evolved without competition.

Dingoes, as derivatives of domestic dogs that evolved from wolves, had derived from lineages that spent millions of years with lots of competition from other predators and very wily, recalcitrant prey.

The wolf had evolved pack-hunting behavior to deal with these challenges.

The thylacine, by all accounts, had not.

One way of interpreting the wolf’s success is that certain wolves evolved to have a relationship with humans. We call the descendants of these wolves domestic dogs. Dingoes are derivatives of domestic dogs, and virtually all accounts suggest that they had some sort of relationship with the indigenous people of Australia.

Thylacines had no relationships with anyone.

The cards were clearly stacked against the mainland thylacine when it went extinct.

Humans were changing the landscape through fire– which allowed human populations to increase.  But that same fire got rid of the forested habitat that thylacines preferred to use to ambush their prey.

And the success of humans also meant that the dingo’s numbers would increase.

And dingoes were much more efficient and generalized predators than thylacines were.

And the dingoes may have considered these mainland thylacines prey.

It was not a good situation for a predator that had spent so many thousands of years evolving without competitors.

And in this case, dingoes were an invasive species.

Over time, they became native, but not after being possibly implicated in the extinction of the mainland thylacine and Tasmanian devil.

It’s not a smoking gun, but dingoes certainly had the opportunity.




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Dingoes are derived from domestic dogs that were brought to Australia between 4,000 and 6,500 years ago.

They are feral dogs.

In terms of classifying them through their phylogeny, they really shouldn’t be recognized as Canis lupus dingo but as Canis lupus familiaris. 

However, the question of whether they should be considered native wildlife in Australia has been a bit of a debate over the years. At times, experts have aligned them with dholes, while others have considered them the ancestor of the domestic dog– which is, of course, putting the cart before the horse. Dingoes are derived from dogs, not the other way around.   A dingo is more like a landrace of dogs that has evolved to live in the wilds of Australia.

Under normal circumstances, feral animals that derive from domestic species are not considered native wildlife.  They usually don’t get protections from governments. If they get anything, it’s normally a bounty on them or the government hires its own people to exterminate them.

We have lots of issues with invasive species all over the world.

This is not an issue to be taken lightly.

However, when an invasive species has been in a place for thousands of years, can we still think of them as an invasive species?

Because dingoes were introduced by man so long ago, should they be considered invasives like feral cats and red foxes?

Well, the answer is much more complex.

And there are many ways to examine this question.

Perhaps the most novel is to examine how other species react to a predator that is an introduced species. It

Have they evolved behavioral mechanisms that keep them from falling prey?

This a study using this new methodology was recently published in PLoS One.  It is entitled “When Does an Alien Become a Native Species? A Vulnerable Native Mammal Recognizes and Responds to Its Long-Term Alien Predator” by Alexandra J.R. Carthey and Peter J. Banks.

The authors examined the foraging behavior of long-nosed bandicoots on properties that were near national parks in the Sydney area.

They examined how often these bandicoots foraged in properties that contained dogs or cats. Cats are quite capable of killing one of these bandicoots, and if they had evolved an aversion to cats, it would be a major boon to their survival.

It turns out that the bandicoots tended to avoid properties with dogs on them. The tended to frequent those where cats were present.

The authors contend that the bandicoots have been able to evolve some natural aversion to Canis lupus through their thousands of years of predation from dingoes. Because of this aversion, they avoid domestic dogs are present, and because domestic dogs and dingoes are part of the same species, they had to have evolved this aversion in response to predation from dingoes.

Cats have been in Australia for only 150 years, and bandicoots have not evolved a similar aversion to them, which tells us that, at least when we’re dealing with long-nosed bandicoots, dingoes have the effect of a native predator upon them.  But cats do not.

The arrival of the dingo was not without ecological consquence for Australia’s fauna. Three species are thought to have disappeared on the mainland as a result of predation and increased competion from dingoes. Thylacines and Tasmanian devils went extinct on the mainland within a very short time of the dingo’s arrival, and the Tasmanian native hen, a type of flightless rail, also disappeared– probably as the result of dingoes killing them. These species persisted into modern times in Tasmania– the only place in Australia where dingoes never colonized.

But these mainland extirpations happened thousands of years ago.

And in that time, the other animals on the Australian mainland that didn’t become extinct had time to adapt to the dingo.

The dingo filled the niche of top mammalian carnivore, a niche that would have been left vacant with the extinction of the thylacine.

Lots of native marsupials in Australia existed alongside predatory dingoes.

Their numbers collapsed only when Europeans arrived and brought in all sorts of different domestic species. And then introduced the European rabbit and the red fox for sport hunting purposes. The grazing species changed the Australian landscape, causing lots of erosion and overgrazing of ground cover, and the cat and the fox began killing the small marsupials that dingoes generally ignored.

In fact, when dingoes exist in large enough numbers, they keep the fox and cat numbers down, and the small native marsupial population is able to thrive.

So Australia’s wildlife has had time to adjust to dingoes and dogs. It has not had time to adjust to all the other introduced species.

This is something would would have expected, but it is interesting to use it in this particular methodology to see if dingoes are truly native or not.


My one little complaint with this study is that the authors state that they never asked the property owners if their cats killed bandicoots.

Although long-nosed bandicoots are in the size range that would make them vulnerable to cats, one really needs to know if the local cats actually consider them prey.

If the local cats don’t consider them prey, they aren’t likely to fear them.

And then you introduce a learned behavior variable into the study that isn’t entirely accounted for in the model.

The other problem with using this methodology to determine whether a species is native of nor is that invasive species usually affect ecosystems, not single species.

For example, one study that is often bandied about to defend the existence of feral cats in New Zealand found that feral cats kept down rats that preyed upon a certain species of seabird.  When the cats were controlled, the rats took a heavy toll upon the colony.

That’s an interesting find, but if one were to look at how cats affect various species in New Zealand from a cost-benefit perspective, one would clearly find that cats are an ecological disaster there. They have been implicated in the extinction or near extinction of so many different birds that one could hardly say that their benefit to this seabird colony justifies their existence.

So we need to look at how dingoes affect the ecosystem before making these pronouncements.

However, to me, it’s pretty obvious that dingoes are the top mammalian predator in Australia, and they do play a beneficial role for most native species.

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A dingo ate my shark

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