Australia's dingo: Not a wolf, not a dog but a distinct species says study


Most people think of the dingo as some sort of wild dog. However, researchers led by the University of Sydney have finally found enough proof to classify the dingo as a separate species from the dog.

Because of the researchers' findings, the Dingo has finally taken its rightful place as a distinct animal from Australia. While the country-continent seems to have a surplus of strange and unique animals, the researchers who worked on the study are still satisfied that the classification of the dingo has finally been settled for good. The researchers published their findings in the online journal the Journal of Zoology.

"Examining the 69 skull specimens and six skin specimens made available has enabled us to create a benchmark description of the dingo. Now any wild canid - dingo, dog, or hybrid of the two - can be judged against that classification," said University of Sydney's Dr. Mathew Crowther from the university's School of Biological Sciences. Crowther is also the lead author of the study.

The dingo was first given the official scientific name Canis antarcticus back in 1792. However, the classification of the dingo was changed several times throughout the years. The confusion regarding the taxonomy of the dingo arose due to the fact that the dingo was first classified based on Arthur Phillip's journal, which contained a short description and a drawing of the animal. Phillips was the founder of the original settlement in Australia located in the area now known as Sydney. He is also the first Governor of New South Wales.

"We can also conclusively say that the dingo is a distinctive Australian wild canid or member of the dog family in its own right, separate from dogs and wolves," Crowther said. "The appropriate scientific classification is Canis dingo, as they appear not to be descended from wolves, are distinct from dogs and are not a subspecies."

Aside from Philip's description and drawing, the taxonomists that first classified the dingo did not have a physical specimen to work with. Moreover, finding a pure breed dingo without any domestic dog ancestry is very difficult. The researchers were able to cobble together their research samples by looking for the purest dingo samples they could find in various museum collections from Australia, the US and Europe.

"Distinguishing dingoes from their hybrids (cross-breeds) with feral dogs is a practical concern," Crowther said. "Current policies in parts of Australia support the conservation of dingoes but the extermination of 'dingo-dogs', which are considered a major pest because they kill livestock."

Many people have some misconceptions about the dingo, especially when it comes to the color of their fur. However, most scientists agree that dingos have long snouts and erect ears. Moreover, dingos also have bushier tails and broader heads compared to domestic dogs.

"Many Australians like to think that dingoes are always yellow and that animals with any other colouration are not dingoes," said study co-author Mike Letnic, a researcher from the University of New South Wales. "This is untrue."

The researchers who worked on reclassifying the dingo have determined that unlike the animal's other distinct feature, the colorations of their coats was not one of its defining traits.

"One of the our insights is that coat colour does not define an animal as a dingo, dog or a hybrid. We found that dingoes can be tan, dark, black and tan, white, or can have the sable coloration typical of German Shepherd dogs."

Based on genetic evidence, dingos arrived in Australia sometime between three thousand to five thousand years ago. Experts also say that they are likely descended from the East Asian domestic dog. Today however, the dingo is an important part of the Australian ecosystem and they serve as one of the continent's land based apex predators.

"That made distinguishing dingoes from dogs problematic, as the DNA tests and analyses of their physical structure were based on dingoes whose ancestry was not known. They were either captive animals or wild animals of uncertain ancestry," Dr. Crowther added.

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