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Dingoes Aren’t Just Wild Dogs

Rather than being the descendants of feral mutts, dingoes are actually in their own unique taxonomical corner

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Dingoes might look like your run-of-the-mill mongrel pooch, and for years, researchers assumed the dingo's ancestors were domesticated dogs from East Asia that subsequently went wild. But it turns out that dingoes are more unique than that. They are not only a distinct species, but also a distinct group of predators, separate from dogs and wolves, The Scientist reports. 

Dingoes arrived in Australia several thousands years ago, and they were first mentioned as a species in 1793. At that time, they were called Canis dingo. However, their official name was soon changed to Canis lupus dingo, on the assumption that dingoes were, in fact, a subspecies of wolf and within the same evolutionary clade as domestic dogs.

In a new study, researchers challenged that assumption. They examined 69 dingo skulls that dated back to 1900 or earlier—presumably before dingoes would have encountered and interbred with domesticated dogs, which only arrived in Australia when Europeans did. Dingoes, the researchers found, have anatomical features that set them apart from dogs and wolves, including a wider head and longer snout, The Scientist writes. The team also found that dingoes don't necessarily have to be tan-colored; they can be black, white or dark brown, too. 

The researchers propose restoring the dingo's scientific name to Canis dingo, a name that would recognize the animals as distinct from both wolves and domestic dogs. “Now any wild canid – dingo, dog, or hybrid of the two – can be judged against that classification,” the researchers said in a statement. That's actually of practical importance for purebreds, the team explains, because, while dingoes are a protected species, "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.”

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