Canis dingo! Scientists Say Dingo is Unique Species
According to a new study published in the Journal of Zoology, the dingo is a distinct member of the dog family, not a kind of wild dog as previously believed.
The dingo is a dog-like animal. It is about 1.2 m long, including the 30-cm tail, and stands about 60 cm tall at the shoulder.
The animal has short, soft fur, a bushy tail, and erect, pointed ears. Its color varies from yellowish to reddish brown, often with white underparts, paws, and tail tip.
Dingoes hunt alone or in small groups. They formerly preyed mostly on kangaroos but now feed mainly on rabbits and sometimes on livestock.
The primitive dingoes were associated with hunter-gatherer societies and later with sedentary agricultural population centers where the primitive dingoes were tamed and subsequently transported around the world.
Austronesian-speaking people transported the dingo from mainland Asia to Australia and other islands in Southeast Asia and the Pacific between 1,000 and 5,000 years ago.
Confusion over whether or not the dingo is a distinct species partly originates from the scientific classification of the dingo, which was based on a simple drawing and description in the journal of Arthur Phillip, Australia’s first governor, without reference to a physical specimen.
To find a specimen of a dingo unlikely to have cross-bred with domestic dogs, Dr Mathew Crowther from the University of Sydney and his co-authors looked at specimens pre-dating 1900.
They examined 69 skull specimens and 6 skin specimens to create a benchmark description of the dingo.
The physical features that define the animal were found to be a fairly broad head, tapered muzzle, erect ears and a bushy tail.
“Relative to similar-sized domestic dogs, dingoes have longer and more slender muzzles. The 19th century dingoes we examined, like wolves but unlike many dogs, do not possess dewclaws on the hind legs,” the scientists said.
“Dingoes can have five basic pelage colors: yellow, brown, ginger/red, black and white.”
“These colors occur in various combinations and 19th century skin specimens included animals that are entirely white, entirely yellow/brown, entirely black, yellow with white patches, particularly at the tip of the tail and ankles, and yellow with black fur along the dorsal parts of the body.”
“The original specimen of dingo illustrated in Mazell & Phillip, 1789, was uniformly brown on its dorsal surface, with the face, underparts and feet being white. Other pre-1800 paintings included colors such as dark brown, reddish brown, and sandy with sabling.”
An illustration of a dingo from Arthur Phillip’s Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, 1789.
“Now any wild canid – dingo, dog, or hybrid of the two – can be judged against that classification,” Dr Crowther explained.
Dr Crowther and his colleagues also resurrect the species name Canis dingo, first published by German naturalist Friedrich Meyer in 1793.
“We argue that because the ancestry of the dogs and dingoes is unknown, and because the dingo was first described as a distinctive wild form and differs from wolves, New Guinea singing dogs and domestic dogs in many behavioral, morphological and molecular characteristics, and they are effectively reproductively isolated in undisturbed natural environments and thus like Canis hallstromi can be considered a distinct taxon,” they said.
“Furthermore, because the dingo was first described as Canis dingo, and this decision was later upheld by ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature), we propose that Canis dingo is the correct binomial.”
The researchers said dingoes have an important role in conservation through their regulation of species such as kangaroos, wallabies and invasive red foxes. A sounder understanding of dingo numbers, based on this clearer identification, will improve understanding of their role in biodiversity.
“Distinguishing dingoes from their hybrids with feral dogs is a practical concern. 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,” Dr Crowther said.