Posts Tagged ‘dingo’

The creature depicted above is called a Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo.  It is found only in Queensland’s Atherton Tableland, which is part of the Great Dividing Range.

Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian explorer, actually hunted this species with some indigenous Australians, which he documents in his Among Cannibals (1889), an ethnography of the indigenous people of northern Australia, which he visited in the early 1880’s. The title is a little bit bombastic, for Lumholtz himself believed that there were many instances of cannibalism among the indigenous Australia.  The truth is the peoples of Queensland were not cannibals.

But they were great hunters. Lumholtz describes the scene in which he first encounters the tree kangaroo that would eventually have his name. The natives called this creature a “boongary”:

Night was approaching, the sun was already setting behind the horizon, the air was very hot and oppressive, and it was evident that there would soon be a thunderstorm. The blacks sat at home in their huts or sauntered lazily from place to place, waiting until it became cool enough for the dance to begin. I had just eaten my dinner, and was enjoying the shade in my hut, while my men were lying round about smoking their pipes, when there was suddenly heard a shout from the camp of the natives. My companions rose, turned their faces toward the mountain, and shouted, “Boongary, boongary!” A few black men were seen coming out of the woods and down the green slope as fast as their legs could carry them. One of them had a large dark animal on his back.

Was it truly a boongary? I soon caught sight of the dog “Balnglan” [a socialized camp dingo] running in advance and followed by Nilgora, a tall powerful man.

The dark animal was thrown on the ground at my feet, but none of the blacks spoke a word. They simply stood waiting for presents from me.

At last, then, I had a boongary, which I had been seeking so long. It is not necessary to describe my joy at having this animal, hitherto a stranger to science, at my feet. Of course I did not forget the natives who had brought me so great a prize. To Nilgora I gave a shirt, to the man who had carried the boongary, a handkerchief, and to all, food. Nor did I omit to distribute tobacco.

I at once began to skin the animal, but first I had to loosen the withies with which its legs had been tied for the men to carry it. The ends of these withies or bands rested against the man’s forehead, while the animal hung down his back, so that, as is customary among the Australians, the whole weight rested on his head.

I at once saw that it was a tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus). It was very large, but still I had expected to find a larger animal, for according to the statements of the natives, a fullgrown specimen was larger than a wallaby—that is to say, about the size of a sheep. This one proved to be a young male.

The tree-kangaroo is without comparison a better proportioned animal than the common kangaroo. The fore-feet, which are nearly as perfectly developed as the hind-feet, have large crooked claws, while the hind-feet are somewhat like those of a kangaroo, though not so powerful. The sole of the foot is somewhat broader and more elastic, on account of a thick layer of fat under the skin. In soft ground its footprints are very similar to those of a child. The ears are small and erect, and the tail is as long as the body of the animal. The skin is tough, and the fur is very strong and beautiful. The colour of the male is a yellowish-brown, that of the female and of the young is grayish, but the head, the feet, and the under side of the tail are black. Thus it will be seen that this tree-kangaroo is more variegated in colour than those species which are found in New Guinea.

Upon the whole, the boongary is the most beautiful mammal I have seen in Australia. It is a marsupial, and goes out only in the night. During the day it sleeps in the trees, and feeds on the leaves. It is able to jump down from a great height and can run fast on the ground. So far as my observation goes, it seems to live exclusively in one very lofty kind of tree, which is very common on the Coast Mountains, but of which I do not know the name. During rainy weather the boongary prefers the young low trees, and always frequents the most rocky and inaccessible localities. It always stays near the summit of the mountains, and frequently far from water, and hence the natives assured me that it never went down to drink.

During the hot season it is much bothered with flies, and then, in accordance with statements made to me by the savages, it is discovered by the sound of the blow by which it kills the fly. In the night, they say, the boongary can be heard walking in the trees (pg. 225-227).

Lumholtz would skin the boongary and treated the skin with arsenic. This specimen had to be taken back to Norway and documented.

However, the natives would never hunt a boongary without the assistance of a dog or two. The dogs that they had at their disposal were dingoes. The wild dingoes would whelp their puppies in hollow logs, and the hunters would steal them. They would then raise them up in the camps and take them hunting. Not all indigenous Australians hunted with dingoes, but this particular group of people in Queensland did. They carefully trained their dogs to follow scents and trails. The dogs were so useful in hunting tree kangaroos that they never hunted boongary without them. Unfortunately, the dingoes often bolted when the mating season came, and it was very hard to breed them in the camps. So they were always forced to take puppies from dens.

While sitting at the camp that night, Lumholtz discovered that his boongary skin was missing.  He knew that there were several dingoes in the camp, and he was certain that one of them had stolen it.  He shouted to the men that one of the dogs had the skin, and because it was treated with arsenic, the dog was in deep trouble:

I at once called the blacks, among whom the news spread like wild-fire, and after looking for a short time one of them came running with a torn skin, which he had found outside the camp. The whole head, a part of the tail and legs, were eaten. It was my poor boongary skin that one of the dingoes had stolen and abused in this manner. I had no better place to put it, so I laid it back again in the same part of the roof, and then, sad and dejected in spirits, I sauntered down to the natives again.

Here every one tried to convince me that it was not his dog that was the culprit. All the dogs were produced, and each owner kept striking his dog’s belly to show that it was empty, in his eagerness to prove its innocence. Finally a half-grown cur was produced. The owner laid it on its back, seized it by the belly once or twice, and exclaimed, Ammery, ammery!—that is, Hungry, hungry! But his abuse of the dog soon acted as an emetic, and presently a mass of skin-rags was strewed on the ground in front of it.

My first impulse was to gather them up, but they were chewed so fine that they were useless. As the skin had been thoroughly prepared with arsenic, it was of importance to me to save the life of the dog, otherwise I would never again be able to borrow another.

Besides, I had a rare opportunity of increasing the respect of the natives for me. I told them that the dog had eaten kdla—that is, wrath—as they called poison, and as my men had gradually learned to look at it with great awe, it would elevate me in their eyes if I could save the life of the dog. I made haste to mix tobacco and water. This I poured into the dog, and thus caused it to vomit up the remainder of the poisoned skin. The life of the dog was saved, and all joined in the loudest praises of what I had done. They promised me the loan of “Balnglan” again, and thus I had hopes of securing another boongary; of course they added as a condition that I must give them a lot of tobacco.

The next morning early I persuaded them to get ready for the chase, but they did not want me to go with them, as the dog was afraid of the white man (pg. 229-230).

Which dingo stole Lumholtz's boongary skin?

Lumholtz brought with him a Gordon setter, which also had his share of adventures in Queensland. The one I have written about most recently is the dog coming across a red-bellied black snake. However, the dog was of no use running through the forests of the table land after boongary.  They needed a lighter-built dog that could run in the heavy undergrowth.

Lumholtz would eventually describe how the dingoes would be used to hunt the boongary. The would give the dog commands from a distance as they pursued their quarry:

The chase begins early in the morning, while the scent of the boongary’s footprints is still fresh on the ground. The dog takes his time, stops now and then, and examines the ground carefully with his nose. Its master keeps continually urging it on, and addresses it in the following manner: Tshe’—tshe’—gangary pul—pulka-—tshe’, pul— tshiuscherri dundun—mormango—tshe’, pul—pulka! etc.— that is, Tshe1-—tshe’—tshe’, smell boongary—smell him— tshe’, smell—seize him by the legs—smart fellow—tslu’, smell—smell him, etc. If the dog finds the scent, it will pursue it to the tree which the animal has climbed. Then some of the natives climb the surrounding trees to keep it from escaping, while another person, armed with a stick, ascends the tree where the animal is. He either seizes the animal by the tail and crushes its head with the stick, or he compels it to jump down, where the dingo stands ready to kill it (pg. 231-232).

The indigenous Australians that Lumholtz was writing about lived very similarly to the way all humans did before the advent of agricultural societies. The dingoes in Australia were likely very similar to the wolves that ranged all across Eurasia, North America, and yes, parts of Africa.

When wild dogs are not persecuted they are readily tamed, as we  have seen in countless stories of arctic explorers taming adult arctic foxes and with Timothy Treadwell’s national park foxes. Culpeos, chillas, and even Darwin’s fox have been found to be quite curious about people. The natives of Tierra del Fuego– who were also hunter-gathers, like these native Australians– managed to domesticate the culpeo, which, according to some sources, was used to hunt otters. (However, I think the coypu is a more likely quarry. Coypu are sometimes called nutria, which is also Spanish for otter.)

The wolf that exists today has been heavily persecuted, and I don’t think anyone has taken account of what that persecution has done to wolf behavior– both learned and inherited.  I think the original wolves before the persecution were more or less like these dingoes that were used to hunt tree kangaroos. They bred in the wild but were easily tamed– perhaps even as adults.  Eventually, whole populations of these wolves existed in hunter-gather camps– and unlike some of these dingoes– they didn’t bolt for the bush when mating season came.  A population of wolves that lived in ancient hunter-gatherer camps is the basis for the dog. Whether these wolves were used for hunting can only be conjectured, but it seems to me that they were.  A wolf with the basic temperament of a dingo could be used very effectively in the hunt.

Modern wolves aren’t normally used as hunting dogs, but within relatively recent history, wolves were crossed into Scandinavian hunting spitz breeds.  The Mongolians use dogs that are half wolf and half dog to pursue wolves, and it is well-established that various Native Americans–particularly on the Great Plains– allowed their dogs to crossbreed with wolves, even encouraging wolves to live their camps and mingle with their dogs.

The notion that there is a clear dividing line between dog and wolf is simply not correct. There are characteristics of dogs and characteristics of wolves, but there are doggish wolves, like Wags, who belonged to Adolph Murie and was basically a golden retriever that looked like an Alaskan wolf, and wolfish dogs, like many chow chows, which Konrad Lorenz believed were definitely derived from wolves, while most Western dogs were derived from golden jackals. The animals are theme and variation on the same basic species.

The idea that hunter-gatherer man would not have used wolves to hunt prey is a notion that I find just a little bit hard to believe. We don’t have hard evidence of it, but when we have these hunter-gatherer people using very truly feral dogs and even other species of wild dog to hunt, I think we can make the assumption that hunter-gatherer man did use the wolf to hunt. He might not be able to do so now, because the wolf is fundamentally changed from what it once was. Wolves today are so nervous and reactive that they won’t cross highways. How exactly could a creature that nervous and reactive colonized that  much territory and hunted such a wide array of species?

Making conclusions about dogs and wolves using modern wolves is really not all that useful.  Domesticating wolves had to have been a really easy affair.

It had to have been so easy a caveman could do it.

I think these nineteenth century indigenous Australians, who used wild-born dingoes to hunt tree kangaroos and other game, do provide us with a possible clue on how the process could have been started.


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From Live Science:

The extinct thylacine, more commonly known as the “Tasmanian tiger” or “marsupial wolf,” hunted more like a cat than a dog, meaning the tiger moniker may be the more appropriate nickname.

The thylacine had the striped coat of a tiger, the body of a dog and like other marsupials (including kangaroos and opossums) carried its young in a pouch. These carnivores were last seen in Australia 3,000 years ago, having died out after the introduction of dingoes by humans. The last remaining populations were sheltered by their isolation on the island of Tasmania, surviving until the 1900s, when a concentrated eradication effort wiped the thylacine out.

Researchers hypothesized that the dingoes were a main cause of the thylacine decline in Australia, because the two species were in direct competition — using the same hunting strategies to hunt the same prey.

Dingoes are a species [sic] of wolves, they are runners,” study researcher Borja Figuerido of Brown University said. “If the thylacines are ambushers, the hypothesis of the extinction of the thylacine outcompeted by dingoes is less probable.”

The elbow joint of the thylacine and the modern tiger, top, is wider and more rectangular than the dog-like wolf and fox, bottom, which are more toward the square. This suggests different styles of catching and subduing prey, cat-like or dog-like.

By looking at the elbow joint bones of the thylacine and 31 other mammals, the researchers noticed they resembled those of cats, which can rotate their paws upward to pounce and attack prey. Dogs and wolves don’t have this rotation capability.

“These anatomical characters reveal something about the hunting strategies of the thylacine. They are more ambushers than previously suspected,” Figueirido said. “Ambush predators usually manipulate the prey with the forearms, they have very good mobility. Running predators lack this ability, because the elbow is locked.”

The limited rotation of their arm bones makes dogs and wolves (including dingoes) faster runners, which changed their hunting behaviors. Dogs and wolves hunt in packs, following their prey over longer distances. The researchers determined that the thylacine was more of a solitary, ambush-style predator, similar to cats.

Marsupial mammals, found mainly in Australia and other areas of the Southern Hemisphere, are similar to placental mammals (such as humans, dogs and cats), but their evolution diverged from ours during the Cretaceous Period, the earliest example of a marsupial appearing about 125 million years ago.

The evolution of these two groups of mammals is an example of convergent evolution, where two separate groups in different locations evolve similar morphologies to deal with similar habitats. The thylacine was thought to be the marsupial equivalent, or ecomorph, of the wolf, with similar body size and eating habits.

Now, Figueirido said, “this designation will need to be revised.”

The study was published today (May 3) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biology Letters.

All of this information has been discussed before, so I don’t know why it’s making news now.  The convergence is in phenotype, not behavior or hunting style. I don’t think anyone ever made that claim.

The dingo outcompeted the thylacine because it was a pack-hunter. It was smarter, and it could attack both large and small prey.

It’s very similar to what happened to Hyaenadon when bear-dogs arrived in North America.

The notion of convergent evolution isn’t that animals from different ancestries evolve to be exactly the same. That’s a bizarre standard– and the one that seems to be put forth here.

But it is remarkable that the bulk of this animal’s adaptations– even if it were an ambush predator– closely resemble that of a dog.

It’s still convergent evolution. You’re never going to find convergent evolution that is 1:1 anywhere. Even with golden and marsupial moles, which are probably the closest anyone will ever get to that 1:1 convergence.

Convergent evolution can mean that only one trait is similar, such as the retractable claws in both modern cats and the thylacoleo, the extinct “marsupial lion,”  or the fact that koalas have the fingerprints, which are essentially a primate trait.

By this metric, the thylacine and the dingo are pretty strong examples of convergent evolution, for they share many traits, including the head shape, and the fact that both were digitigrade. Both use strong jaws that have evolved into the shape of a muzzle.

And a dingo isn’t a “species of wolf.”  Is is a subspecies that is sometimes called Canis lupus dingo or Canis lupus familiaris, which is probably more accurate, seeing as dingoes are more closely related to East Asian and Indonesian dog breeds than they are to wild wolves.

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This is an interesting idea, even though doing so is currently illegal:


I don’t know what sort of special care a quoll might require and how that might differ from caring for a ferret or a cat.

And if you want a dog, then you could get a dingo. Some dingoes do tame down quite nicely. A few have even made it as stockdogs, and at least one has made as a guide dog.

Not all dingoes make good pets, but they are closer to a domesticated animal that those marsupial carnivores, which might require some really intense selective breeding to make a safe family pet.

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Ch. Myall, a British show dingo.

W.D. Drury writes about the show dingoes in British Dogs: Their Points, Selection And Show Preparation (1903) :

Of the Dingos that have been exhibited, Captain Burton a frequent winner about sixteen years since, was unquestionably one of the best. Like many wild animals in confinement, this dog would continue to walk round in a circle for hours together; it was for this reason that he was exhibited loose in an iron cage, as if chained up the chain soon became twisted. In later years Myall has successfully represented the breed on the show-bench. Previous to either of these dogs Lupus was a frequent winner under different judges. The high carriage of tail was a fault in this dog apparent to any one; in addition to this the writer, who owned Lupus for some years, always considered that there was something about the dog not altogether characteristic of the breed, although it would have been very difficult to define exactly what this was. He had no suspicion at the time that the dog, although bred in this country, was not a pure-bred Dingo, as was represented to be the case when he became possessed of it. It was not until some time after the dog had been given away and he was exhibited by his new owner that the writer noticed for the first time one or two small black spots at the root of the tongue. This clearly showed that there was Chinese or Chow-Chow blood in the dog, which readily accounted for the high carriage of tail, as well as for other faults not so easily discernible.

I should note that black spots on the tongue do not always denote chow ancestry. I have known a few pure goldens to have this trait.

Dingoes are not recognized as a purebred. The ANKC does not have a dingo standard, although it did at one time.

It sounds perverse that anyone would want to show a dingo. This is a creature that is the result of natural selection, not the result of selective breeding. Showing such an animal gives dishonor to its nature, denying its due respect as part of Australia’s native fauna.

Althugh dingoes are feral domestic dogs, they have been living free of human selective breeding for perhaps 4,000 years.

Instead of ch0w-chow, I think it is more likely that Myall was an alpine dingo, which have evolved a thicker coat to live in the colder places on the continent, such as the Snowy Mountains.


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These hunters rely upon their dogs to hunt tree kangaroos, cuscus, and feral pigs.

The dogs are derived from the semi-wild New Guinea singing dog, which is a dingo that evolved to live in the New Guinea Highlands.

This footage shows the dogs hunting in the forest. It also includes a clip of the New Guinea singing dog howling.

The New Guinea singing dog is a critically endangered subpopulation of the ding (Canis lupus dingo) that is in desperate need of genetic diversity. Because these village dogs are derived from it, I don’t see why they aren’t recruited as potential outcrosses.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the New Guinea singing dog is that too many of its advocates have considered it a separate species from the dingo and the domestic dog. Many older texts even refer to it as Canis hallstromi. Almost all of these dogs descend from a single litter that was born in Australia from imported parents.

Of course, that reality is not understood when a welfare situation pops up. When 85 of these dogs were recently discovered in Pennsylvania living in less than ideal situations, the dogs were confiscated. From my understanding, about half of these dogs have been spayed and neutered.

Now, spaying and neutering rescued dogs is required by law in so many jurisdictions. It doesn’t matter what kind of dog.

I’m very worried that big chunk of this breed’s potential genetic diversity has been compromised. Until those 85 were discovered, there were only 150 of these dogs residing outside New Guinea. There are a few still roaming the New Guinea Highland, though I would be highly surprised if these dogs were “purebred” and illegible for inclusion their studbooks.

Of course, all of this would be moot point, if their advocates were more willing to allow outcrosses to dingoes and other primitive dog breeds. The dingo and the New Guinea village dog seem to be the most logical outcrosses to increase this breed’s genetic diversity, but I have heard of someone crossing in Shetland sheepdog — of all things. There is also the Malaysian Telomian breed, another monestrous primitive breed from Malaysia that so strongly resembles the singing dog.

BTW, I should mention that the name Canis lupus dingo is controversial. Some taxonomists think all dingoes–including the singing dog– should be considered part of the domestic dog subspecies, Canis lupus familiaris. Dingoes are derived from dogs that existed in Asia or Indonesia that existed under a varying amount of domestication. Once out of agricultural societies, these dogs developed physical features and behaviors that are more associated with wolves than village dogs.


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(source for image)

Ah. I finally got you.

I said it was not a domestic dog. It is not.

It isn’t even canine.

It’s not even from a member of the order Carnivora.

It is a thylacine skull.

For those of you who don’t know this is what a thylacine looked like, here’s footage of the last one, Benjamin, who died in 1936:


Thlyacines were a wonderful example of convergent evolution.

It’s amazing how much their skulls resemble that of a placental wolf.

When Europeans colonized Australia, the only large predator on the mainland was the dingo, an animal derived from East Asian domestic dogs, which were derived from the placental wolf. Dingoes very strongly resemble certain subspecies of wolf, and they are currently recognized as a subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus dingo.

On Tasmania, there were no dingoes at all. Instead, there was this wolfish creature with stripes.

One would have thought that the two were related.

After all, they looked so much alike and lived in relative proximity to each other.

But evolution often produces similar animals from very different lineages. The closest relatives to the dingo are dogs and wolves. The closest relatives to the thylacine are the carnivorous marsupials. The two animals evolved to hunt relatively similar prey.

However, a study from 2007 found that although physically similar, the dingo is structurally much better equipped to attack large prey. It may have had more powerful bite, but the thylacine was forced to hunt mostly smaller prey.

When the dingo arrived in Australia around 4,000 years ago, the dingo could prey on all sorts of different animals, including the biggest kangaroos.

The dingoes were also pack hunters, which meant that they could more easily pursue larger prey.

It has been suggested that the natives of Australia were also regularly managing the land through burnings mean that there was less cover for the thylacine. The thylacine preferred to hunt in the dense forest, while the dingo was more at home hunting out in the open. This has been disputed, simply because aboriginal burning increases the number of species that inhabit the desert environment.  The thylacine would have benefited from the burnings and would not have become so stressed that it would become extinct.

However, the dingo also had a complex relationship with the people– in the form of a kind of semi-domestication. That meant that the dingoes would benefit from the successes of humans.

The thylacine had none of these advantages. Humans would have been a major competitor for the thylacine for prey, and high densities of people would mean that the thylacine would have faced really intense competition from both people and dingoes. Such stresses could cause the thylacine to become extinct on the mainland.

It was forced to hunt smaller prey. It was a solitary hunter, and it had no beneficial relationship with people. Its hunting habitat was fragmented, and it simply could not compete with the dingo.

Because dingoes never made it to Tasmania, the thylacine was able to hold on for much longer.

I have never understood why people called this animal a Tasmanian tiger. It may be that it looked like a giant quoll, which are also called “native cats.” A big native cat might as well be a tiger, right?

However, it was soon the target of hunters in Tasmania, for it was widely believed to a great menace to sheep. Most the killings likely happened as the result of free roaming domestic dogs, but it was easier to blame the wild tiger than the tame dog. After all, if that 2007 study is correct, it is very unlikely that a thylacine would have risked so much to tangle with a sheep.

It is really a shame that the thylacine went extinct, because it was such a wonderful example of convergent evolution. Through the history of the earth, the doggish form has appeared several times.  The earliest large hyenas actually looked more like dogs than modern hyenas do, and the Mesonychids looked a lot like wolves (in the case of Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, a very, very big wolf!).

It should not be a surprise that an animal similar to this form would pop up in the marsupial lineage.  Mesonychids were actually related the even-toed ungulates and whales and were of no relationship to modern wolves or dogs at all.

Evolution does amazing things. Convergence is one of its most interesting aspects.


To read more about the thylacine, check out the wonderful online Thylacine Museum. It has lots of historical photos, including the oldest extant photograph of a thylacine.

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Lycaon pictus. It is commonly called the African wild dog or Cape hunting dog. Such a name suggests a feral domestic dog, which it most definitely is not. It definitely needs a name change if it is going to survive.

Lycaon pictus has an image problem.

But most of it seems to be in the name.

I remember hearing these animals called “Cape hunting dogs,” and some old nature documentaries treated them as if they were some sort of feral dog.

In colonial texts, I always see them referenced in this fashion. I remember reading The Man-eaters of Tsavo by Col. Patterson, and his discussion of the species is that they are something like a dingo. I also remember reading texts that discuss Rhodesian [sic] Ridgeback histories, and the  “Cape hunting dog” is listed as an ancestor. (I think they mean something else, but the terms are so nebulous that people often wind up mixing up African feral dogs with “African wild dogs.” It’s enough to confuse modern researchers.)

Because these animals have a range that extends beyond southern Africa, it became common to call these animals “African wild dogs.”

Another bad name.

Not only are there lots of other real African wild dogs (three species of jackal, the Ethiopian wolf, and several foxes), these animals are not related to any of the feral dogs.  One of my biggest complaints in Stanley Coren’s Intelligence of Dogs is that he thought this species could have contributed to several domestic dog breeds. The name is both generic and misleading at the same time.

You see, Lycaon pictus is a relative of the interbreeding and interfertile species in the genus canis, but it’s not that closely related to them. It is more closely related to those interfertile species than the two species of “Africa-only” jackals (the black-backed and the side-striped).

Here’s the dog family phylogenetic tree:

(Image comes from this study)

Ethiopian wolves and golden jackals are the most distant relatives to Canis lupus (which include dogs, New Guinea singing dogs, dingoes, and wolves) with which it can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

See where “African wild dogs” are on that tree?

They are too distantly related to interbreed with domestic dogs or wolves.

But calling them “African wild dogs” suggests that they are related to dogs. It even suggests, if one gets sloppy enough, that these animalss represent a form of feral African dog.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but Lycaon pictus is an endangered species. The IUCN lists them as endangered, and the populations that do exist are fragmented. The land they live on is needed for people to raise crops and graze livestock.

When people encroach on Lycaon pictus’s habitat they unleash several threats.  One of these is domestic dogs, who are carriers of canine diseases.

People also shoot, trap, and poison them.

In the old days they were shot to protect game herds. The same rationale was used in the early days of the conservation movement to kill off wolves in America’s nation parks. Kill of the predators to save wildlife.

Today they are shot to protect livestock.

And if we believe that African wild dogs are just feral dogs, then what is to stop people from killing them?

To make things worse, Lycaon pictus requires vast expanses of territory. They need lots and lots of room to be able to hunt enough prey to survive.

Most African national parks and private game preserves are too small for them.

And then those preserves are much more interested in promoting “sexy” animals. They do a lot to promote lions and hyenas, which are major predators and competitors of Lycaon pictus.

And if the park managers believe that Lycaon pictus is some kind of  feral animal, they aren’t going to do much to promote their conservation to either their investors or their governments.

So to solve this problem, one conservation has decided that a name change is necessary to save the species.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff writes about the efforts of conservationist Greg Rasmussen in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe:

We humans are suckers for certain kinds of wildlife, from lions to elephants. I hadn’t known I was a zebra fan until I drove my rented car into a traffic jam of zebras here. My heart fluttered.

As for rhinos, they’re so magnificent that they attract foreign aid. Women here in rural Zimbabwe routinely die in childbirth for lack of ambulances or other transport to hospitals, and they get no help. But rhinos in this park get a helicopter to track their movements.

Then there are animals that don’t attract much empathy. Aardvarks. Newts. And, at the bottom tier, African wild dogs.

Wild dogs (which aren’t actually wild dogs, but never mind that for now) are a species that has become endangered without anyone raising an eyebrow. Until, that is, a globe-trotting adventurer named Greg Rasmussen began working with local villages to rebrand the dogs — and save them from extinction.

It’s a tale that offers some useful lessons for do-gooders around the world, in clever marketing and “branding,” and in giving local people a stake in conservation. For if it’s possible to rescue a despised species with a crummy name like “wild dogs,” any cause can have legs.


Wild dogs are not dogs, which split off from wolves only in the last 30,000 years. In contrast, wild dogs last shared a common ancestor with dogs or wolves about 6 million years ago. They are the size of German shepherds and look like dogs, but they don’t bark and have different teeth and toes. And although many have tried, they have not been domesticated.

“Chimpanzees and gorillas are closer to us humans than wolves are to painted dogs,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Note that terminology: “painted dogs.” Central to Mr. Rasmussen’s effort to save the dogs has been a struggle to rename them, so that they sound exotic rather than feral.

Do-gooders usually have catastrophic marketing skills. Pepsi and Coke invest fortunes to promote their products over their rivals, while humanitarians aren’t nearly as savvy about marketing causes with far higher stakes — famine, disease, mass murder.

Mr. Rasmussen is an exception, and his effort to rebrand the species as “painted dogs” caught on. The name works because the animals’ spotted coats suggest that they ran through an artist’s studio.

Mr. Rasmussen runs the Painted Dog Conservation, a center that offers the animals a refuge from poachers and rehabilitation when they are injured. But most of all, he works with impoverished local villagers so that they feel a stake in preserving painted dogs.

Conservation efforts around the world often involve tensions with local people. But you can’t save rainforests if their advocates are 5,000 miles away, and conservationists increasingly are realizing that they can succeed only if they partner with local people.

Painted Dog Conservation does a lot of work with local people who live near these animals.  Rasmussen understands that the people aren’t as into conserving this animal because it’s not believed to be something unique.

It’s just a dog.

But if it’s a “painted dog,” it might be worth protecting.


You may note on this blog, I’ve usually called them by their scientific name or the direct English translation of that name. Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf.” Lycaon means wolf in Greek. Pictus means painted in Latin.

I think this is actually a better name than “Painted Dog.”


Well, I know they aren’t wolves as we understand them.

But neither is the South American maned wolf.

And what about the extinct the Tasmanian wolf?

Or the hyena the Namibians and South Africans call a Strandwolf?

Or the the little termite eating hyena called the aardwolf?

It seems to me that there are lots of things we call wolves but really aren’t.

The maned wolf is more distantly related to the real wolves than the Lycaon pictus is.

And the maned wolf does not have the same social structure that characterizes both Lycaon pictus and real wolves.

It seems to me that we could get away with calling this animal the “painted wolf” far more easily than we could by calling a marsupial carnivore a “Tasmanian wolf.”

And there is another thing:

North Americans and most Europeans view wolves rather strangely.

Where we once believed them to be the epitome of all evil in the wilderness, we now believe them to be the symbols of our wild heritage.

Calling Lycaon pictus a “painted wolf” would at least get people thinking about it in those terms.

Just look what has happened to the animal formerly referred to as the Simien jackal.  DNA studies told us that it was actually closely related to the wolf and coyote, and its name was changed to “Ethiopian wolf.”

People now care about it because they think of it as a wolf.

It doesn’t matter than more recent studies have found that the golden jackal is more closely related to the wolf and coyote line than the Ethiopian wolf is.

People want to conserve wolves.

They don’t want to save the jackals or the feral dogs.

It’s unfortunate, I know.

But words have power.

And so do symbols.

The wolf of Eurasia and North America has been saved largely because the symbols it represents have changed in the public imagination.

I don’t see why the symbolism of the wolf can’t be used to save Lycaon pictus.

Calling them painted wolves would certainly elevate their status in the developed countries, and it might even help generate revenue (in the form of ecotourism and various foundations) that might be used to save this species.

Whatever we call it, Lycaon pictus needs some rebranding.

But maybe not.

There are Australians who are trying to save the dingo, which is a feral breed of domestic dog!

But Australia is a much more affluent place than many African countries, and it might be easier to get people excited about something like this if their bellies are full and they have money to spend.

So a rebrand is necessary.


Before the dingo people assail me:

I am classifying the dingo with the domestic dogs for a very simple reason.

They all descend from domestic Asian dogs, not wolves. All dogs, including the dingo, descend from wolves, but their direct ancestors were domestic dogs.

I do not deny that they are pretty wild animals and are not typically suitable as pets.

However, dingos are currently listed as Canis lupus dingo. I have some issues with this classification.

I believe there are two main reasons for its subspecies status– to keep people from owning them and to ensure that governments and individuals will do all they can to preserve them as native Australian wildlife.

I certainly don’t disagree with those objectives.

But I think we need to be careful about assigning it a subspecies status.

Where does it stop?

Couldn’t we say golden retrievers a unique subspecies of C. lupus?

I guess it’s just the taxonomic lumper in me coming out.


You note that I don’t use the name Canis familiaris for domestic dogs.

I think it’s a pretty stupid name.

We call domestic pigs Sus scrofa domestica because it’s derived from the Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa).

We call the domestic horse Equus ferus caballus because it’s derived from the Eurasian wild horse (Equus ferus).

Because most domestic ducks (save the Muscovies) are derived mallards, we call them Anas platyrhynchos (no subspecies given).

I don’t get why there is so much resistance to calling domestic dogs Canis lupus familiaris.

I think it may have to do with the long held belief that domestic dogs couldn’t possibly be wolves because wolves are evil.

I am sure this thinking has tinctured a lot of discussion about dogs and their origins.

And Darwin didn’t help.

Darwin believed just about every wild dog played a role in developing the domestic dog.

It’s not true, of course.

Then Konrad Lorenz posited the theory that some dogs were derived from wolves and others were derived from golden jackals.

So far, we know of only one dog that has direct ancestry from jackals: the Sulimov dog.

Now, there are differences between dogs and wolves, but wolves themselves are pretty diverse animals.

In their wild forms, they have come in so many different forms and ecological niches throughout their natural history.

In their domestic forms, these differences can become even more greatly magnified.

The cognitive adaptations that dogs have to live with people are interesting and worth noting, but how are these different from the Arctic wolf’s white pelt or the Arabian wolf’s large ears?

Why can’t we just accept that C. lupus is a very magnificently diverse species and domestic dogs are part of it?

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