Back in 2019, an incredibly cute dingo pup was found hiding and crying in the garden of a backyard in north-eastern Victoria.
Marks on the pup’s body suggested he’d been dropped from the clutches of an eagle flying overhead.
The pup, named “Wandi”, became an Instagram sensation and DNA tests reported he was a pure dingo.
Soon after his crash-landing, Wandi took up residence at the Dingo Discovery Center north-west of Melbourne, run by Lyn Watson of the Australian Dingo Foundation.
Ms Watson said she was so excited at the time because there’d been a widespread belief that pure dingoes were going extinct in south-eastern Australia as they interbred with other canids (members of the dog family).
“We thought [Wandi] was a rare find.”
Pure dingoes may not be rare
But pure dingoes may not be as rare as we think, according to authors of a new genetic study.
“While some dingoes have a dash of domestic dog, as a population they are retaining their genetic identity,” researcher Kylie Cairns of the University of New South Wales said.
But she found there was less genetic purity of dingoes in states where there is more culling of the animals as “wild dogs”.
“If we want to keep dingoes in the wild, we need to reduce culling and we need to think better about how we do it,” Dr Cairns said.
The new research, published in the CSIRO journal Australian Mammalogy, has renewed longstanding debates about the identity of the dingo and how to manage it.
Researchers announced in 2015 that genetic tests had shown “extensive hybridisation” between dingoes and domestic dogs was amounting to “death by sex in an Australian icon”.
Dr Cairns and colleagues challenge these conclusions in their analysis of DNA samples from over 5,000 wild canids.
Australia-wide, 64 per cent were pure dingo, she said.
“Over the past 200 years there’s definitely been a process of hybridisation … but the animals that are in the wild are still mostly dingo,” said Dr Cairns, who is supported by a grant from the Australian Dingo Foundation.
“Even in New South Wales they’re holding their own, they’re retaining their genetic identity.”
Her figures showed 24 per cent of canids she surveyed in NSW were pure dingo.
Researchers question culling
The researchers also suggest “wild dog” culling programs perpetuate a “myth” about how many feral dogs are across the continent.
“There are not that many feral dogs living in the wild, contrary to popular belief,” said Dr Cairns, who reported only 31 feral dogs in her sample.
In fact, culling wild canids could threaten the purity of the dingo gene pool by making it more likely female dingoes will breed with dogs, Dr Cairns said.
She points to her data showing areas of Australia where dingoes are not as widely culled as having a higher percentage of pure dingoes. These include Western Australia (97 per cent), South Australia (91 per cent) and the Northern Territory (98 per cent).
Dingoes are a native predator that play an important role in the ecology and should not be killed in national parks, Dr Cairns said.
Culling should not be carried out in the dingo breeding season, and needs to be more targeted to areas where there are stock losses, she added.
But Peter Fleming, a research leader at the NSW Department of Primary Industry, disagrees with the conclusions made by Dr Cairns and his colleagues.
He said the data in the new paper in fact showed a lot of similarities to earlier research he co-authored, which found hybridization was extensive.
But Dr Cairns and colleagues had used different definitions of key terms, Dr Fleming added.
“It’s a bit of a straw man argument. First of all you redefine what ‘feral’ is, you redefine what a ‘pure dingo’ is, and then all the arguments fall into place afterwards.
Dr Fleming said dingoes were in greater numbers now than before European settlement, and that culling was necessary to prevent negative impacts on livestock, wildlife and human wellbeing.
Culling is already targeted and not endangering dingoes, I added.
“There is no data to support the idea that culling is a threat to dingo purity,” Dr Fleming said.
Contrary to Cairns et al’s concern, reducing free-ranging dog populations in the targeted areas is more likely to prevent further introgression. [spread] of modern dog genes.”
Dingoes vs dogs: are they different?
At the heart of the disagreement appears to be a question of whether dingoes are so different from dogs they should be considered their own species (called canis dingo instead of canis familiaris).
Cairns et al. refuse to accept the verdict of Australian and international taxonomists that all dogs, including dingoes, are canis familiaris,Dr Fleming said.
But some scientists like Dr Cairns argue dingoes can be distinguished as a separate species from domestic dogs in a range of ways.
While dogs and dingoes have a lot in common, dingoes as a population can be distinguished by a cluster of features that help them live in the wild, said Bradley Smith of Central Queensland University, who studies the cognition and behavior of canines.
The fundamental difference between dingoes and domestic dogs is their independence, says Dr Smith, who is also scientific director of the Australian Dingo Foundation.
As part of this independence, dingoes are good at solving problems for themselves, rather than having to be trained like dogs, Dr Smith added.
And a dingo’s body is built for the wild.
For example, it has a big brain and strong jaws, and its head is the widest part of it body.
“So anywhere its head can go, its body can go,” Dr Smith said.
A dingo’s narrow chest and other anatomy also allows for efficient movement over large distances, Dr Smith said. And this can be seen in its relatively straight trail of paw prints.
The dingo also has super flexible joints.
“They can twist their head left and right but also they can put their head up and look straight up or behind,” he said.
“Their elbows, wrists, back hips all flex and allow them to get into wombat holes and under fences.
“If you put a dingo on its hind legs, you can splay out its arms wide.
“And if they’re standing, you can grab their back foot and string it out like you would their tail, straight out behind them.”
Scientists like Dr Smith are still trying to work out exactly why dingoes have all this flexibility, but it could help with hunting and latching on to prey, or chasing them into burrows.
Even the ears of a dingo can move independently of each other, and face backwards, Dr Smith said.
There are also other differences between dogs and dingoes, including their breeding patterns, territorial nature and social structure – and the fact that dingoes are more likely to howl than bark.
All this gives them an edge in the wild, Dr Smith said, suggesting this probably explains Dr Cairns’s findings that the dingo’s gene pool is still strong, despite mixing with dogs.
“Their dingo-ness stays pretty prominent and if it didn’t, they wouldn’t have the tools to survive in the wild,” he said.
Terrestrial ecologist Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney agrees.
“Anything that doesn’t look like a dingo and behave like a dingo – even if it’s got dog genes in it – doesn’t survive,” said Professor Dickman, who is editing a special issue of The Australian Zoologist on the “dingo dilemma “.
He said there has been growing recognition that breeding between dogs and dingoes has so far had less impact on the purity of dingoes in the wild than previously thought.
As to the debate over whether dingoes and dogs should be the same species? Professor Dickman says it comes down to different ideas about how you define a species.
According to the “biological species concept”, animals that can breed with each other – like dogs and dingoes – should be regarded as the same species.
But the same rules don’t apply to wolves, Professor Dickman said.
“Wolves can breed with dogs, but nobody questions whether wolves are a distinct species.”
However, some experts, like palaeontologist Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, do question this.
Professor Archer argues that wolves, dogs and dingoes are all the same species, with dingoes being just an ancient breed of dog.
It made sense that dingoes dominated in the wild since they had lived in Australia for thousands of years, he said.
But the differences between dingoes and domestic dogs were not enough to make them a separate species, given how much variation there is among domestic dog breeds, Professor Archer said.
“The nonsense of that is that every breed of dog, from chihuahuas to great danes, would have to be a different species as well.”
Dr Smith counters that human interference with domestic dog breeding has made them too “artificial” to be compared to dingoes.
But regardless of what we call Australia’s wild canids, Professor Archer shares the concerns about culling them.
“I find this incredibly sad,” he said.
“The reality is the dingo is extremely important in Australia as the dominant predator on the mainland and any argument that they should be removed is crazy.”
Studies of gut contents found dingoes are important in controlling rabbits and cats, as well as some native herbivores like kangaroos that can overgraze vegetation, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if some of these have dog genes,” Professor Archer said.
“We need the dingoes in Australia.”