Australian Fauna

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The Dingo
Canis lupus dingo

Dingo on Sand Dunes, Northern Territory, Australia

Dingo on Sand Dunes, Northern Territory

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  • Both male and female dingoes take part in raising their pups (litters average five). When the youngsters are 14 days old, the mother regurgitates food for them. By the time they are three weeks old, they will leave the den for short periods and are able to eat rabbit.
  • A purebred dingo stands about 60 cm high and weighs about 15 kg, making it slightly smaller than a German shepherd. Although their coats are mainly sandy-yellow, they can also be black and tan in colour, depending on their habitat (golden yellow dingoes are found in sandy areas, while the darker ones are found in forests).
  • The Australian Government was so concerned that dingoes might crossbreed with German shepherds that it banned the importation of that breed from 1920 until 1970.
  • In the wild, dingoes often hunt for food alone, although they can hunt together with others when seeking large prey (e.g. kangaroos).
  • They are different from most dogs in that they don’t bark, only howl; breed only once a year; and have no dew claws on their hind legs

The dingo is unmistakably canine— as was evident to the early European settlers, who eagerly crossed their imported herding dogs with the dingo in order to obtain breeds better adapted to the harsh Australian climate. The Australian cattle dog— a.k.a. the Queensland (blue) heeler— and the Australian kelpie are recognized dingo hybrid breeds. Like all other canines (jackals, coyotes and all domestic dogs), the dingo is closely related to the wolf— DNA studies point to all dogs being descended from some wolf-like ancestor.

But are dingoes domestic dogs gone wild, or wild animals of which, like wolves, some were domesticated? The dingo’s close resemblance to domestic dogs in Asia, its association with Aboriginal people and the fact that it was the only large placental mammal (except humans) on the continent led many to say its ancestors were domestic dogs. But others disagreed, hence the lack of agreement on a scientific name for the animal. For years the dingo was categorized as a subspecies of the domestic dog: Canis familiaris dingo. But in 1982, some taxonomists recommended it instead be classified as a subspecies of the wolf: Canis lupus dingo. Others decreed it a species in its own right: Canis dingo.

A genetic analysis of the Australian dingo by Peter Savo lain en of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and colleagues, think the introduction of the dogs may be associated with the spread of seafaring Austronesian-speaking people who originated in south China, expanding from Taiwan via the Philippines to Indonesia about 6,000 years ago. The international team, whose work appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested that the dogs tagged along. Evidence from mitochondrial DNA suggests that the wild dogs arrived on the continent around 5,000 years ago, possibly in a "single chance event." The dogs only failed to reach Tasmania because rising sea levels had inundated the Bass Strait some 6,000 years earlier.

The new data comes from an analysis of dingo, dog and wolf mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) types. This is the DNA found in the cell's "power houses", and it is passed down from parent to offspring on the maternal side only. On a family tree of mtDNA types in different members of the dog family, dingoes sit on a major branch alongside 70% of domestic dog sequences. All the dingo mtDNA types either belonged to or showed great similarity to a single type called A29. Studies of dingo physiques suggest they are very similar to Indian pariah dogs and wolves. But among domestic dogs, A29 is found only in East Asia, suggesting the dogs' origins lie here, rather than on the Indian subcontinent. The researchers analysed mtDNA sequences in 211 dingoes and compared them to a world-wide sample of 676 dogs.

The mtDNA of the Australian dingo shows restricted sequence variation compared to the domestic dogs and the wolves in the study. The 211 dingoes had 20 mtDNA types differing from each other by at most two substitutions. Two of the dingo mtDNA types were identical to dog haplotypes, whereas the other 18 were specific to dingoes. In contrast, the 676 domestic dogs showed 114 mtDNA types with up to 16 substitutions between mtDNA types. All mtDNA sequences among dingoes fall within the largest clade of dog sequences, Clade A, representing 70% of domestic dog types. Fifty-three per cent of the dingoes had the A 29 mtDNA type, one had the A 9 type, and 18 had mtDNA types unique to the dingo, clustering around A 29 in a star-like formation, indicating that all dingo mtDNA types originate from A 29. A9 was found only in one individual and is considered to be the result of a parallel mutation. The mean distance to A 29 in the dingo mtDNA sequences shows considerable variation between Western Australia and other areas of the country, probably as a result of random genetic drift. The A 29 type is found in domestic dogs, also, but only in East Asia and Arctic America.

The dingo descends from a small population of dogs, theoretically as few as a single pregnant female or as a small group which had lost genetic variation on its way from the Asian mainland, and have evolved until the present in isolation from other canine populations. The mean genetic distance between the dingo's mtDNA sequences puts the origin of the dingo at circa 4,600 to 5,400 years ago. The dogs of neighboring islands as well as the archaeological samples show that several other mtDNA types were present in the region. The fact that none of them were found in the dingoes suggest that their ancestors were imported only once. Interestingly, the feral New Guinea Singing Dog (Canis lupus hallstromi) also has the mtDNA A 29 type, and a unique New Guinea Singing dog type derived from A 29 by one substitution. It is therefore possible that it shares a common origin and had some gene flow with the Australian dingo.

The dingo has been implicated in driving the now extinct Tasmanian "tiger," or thylacine, off mainland Australia, marginalising it in Tasmania, its final island habitat.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, the dingo was widespread, living mostly as a wild animal, though many lived, ate and hunted with their human keepers. Aboriginal people highly prized the dingo, also known as the warrigal, as a domestic animal. dingoes were bed warmers, camp cleaners, hunting companions and guard dogs.

As the First Fleet’s cargo of sheep, along with other livestock and goods necessary for establishing the colony, was offloaded onto the ‘Great South Land’ in 1788, could anyone have known that this fledgling nation’s economy would largely be built ‘on the sheep’s back’ (i.e. wool), and that an epic war against the dingo lay ahead?

It didn’t take long for dingoes to learn that sheep were ‘easy pickings’ compared to their prey of native animals. When sheep farmers saw that dingoes would harass, bite and kill sheep in large numbers without actually eating them— a single dingo can maul up to 50 sheep in one night, killing far more than it needs for food— they realized something had to be done. On stations that used to shear 100,000 sheep, dingoes inflicted such heavy losses that many owners switched to cattle. Others mounted massive shooting, trapping and poisoning campaigns to try to control the problem of dingoes, which apparently multiplied substantially after sheep were introduced. Realizing that ‘dingoes and sheep don’t mix,’ many wool growers constructed wire mesh fences to try to protect their sheep.

Ultimately, the longest exclusion fence in the world— at 5,321 km (3,307 miles), longer even than the Great Wall of China— was built to try to protect the sheep industry in the entire south-east part of Australia. South of the 1.8-metre-high (6 ft) Dog Fence, dingoes are declared vermin, attracting bounties of up to A$500 per scalp. Sheep can now graze in relative safety alongside kangaroos, whose populations have exploded in the absence of a predator large enough to keep their numbers in check. North of the fence, the dingo is regarded as a legitimate wildlife species and roams freely.

The dingo is not endangered but interbreeding with domestic dogs is a major problem. About 80% of dingoes are now thought to be hybrids. Dingoes are most common along the edges of forests and grasslands where prey is usually abundant. They live on small mammals, especially rabbits, but also feed on kangaroos, lizards and carrion.


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