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Posts Tagged ‘dingoes as domestic dogs’

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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