Ancient DNA Unravels the Mysteries of the Dingo, Australia’s Wild Dog

Researchers dove into thousands of years of evolutionary history, revealing new insights about the iconic, though sometimes vilified, canines

A tan dog-like animal standing in an open field outdoors
Ranchers and landowners consider dingoes pests, while conservationists say they are vitally important to Australia's ecosystem. Jason Edwards via Getty Images

Dingoes are a quintessentially Australian animal, right up there with kangaroos and koalas. The wild dogs also hold a deep cultural significance to Australia’s First Peoples.

But despite the ubiquity and importance of dingoes, their evolutionary origin story has largely remained a mystery—until now.

A new analysis of ancient dingo DNA, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps fill in some of the gaps about these toothy mammals, including when they arrived on the continent and their connections to other canids.

“This study is tantalizing, because it provides some of the data needed to allow us to explore the evolutionary relationships between dingoes, New Guinea singing dogs, global dog populations and wolves,” says Kylie Cairns, a biologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia who was not involved with the research, to New Scientist’s James Woodford.

Scientists extracted DNA from 42 ancient dingo skeletons that pre-date the arrival of Europeans to Australia. The dingo remains range in age from 400 to 2,746 years old, and they were discovered in several different parts of the continent.

They then compared some of this genetic material to DNA from 11 modern dingoes; 372 domestic dogs, wolves and other canids; and six New Guinea singing dogs, which are close relatives of dingoes and among the rarest wild dogs in the world.

Their analysis constructed thousands of years of dingo population history—and helped answer several questions. For one, the study suggests modern dingoes do not interbreed with domestic dogs, contrary to what has long been assumed. Today’s dingoes share much of their DNA with their ancient ancestors—and very little with domestic dogs.

Ancient DNA also revealed that dingoes arrived in Australia between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago, likely on boats with traders in the Pacific. And the way they arrived could explain the geographic distribution of dingoes today.

Jaw bone with teeth protruding against black backdrop
The researchers studied DNA from ancient dingo skeletons, including this 2,241-year-old jaw bone found in New South Wales. Queensland University of Technology

Modern dingoes are classified into two major groups: one that lives on the eastern side of the continent, and the other that inhabits the western side. But how and why did this separation occur?

One popular theory relates to the “dingo fence,” a nearly 3,500-mile barrier built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fence, meant to keep dingoes away from grazing livestock, divides Australia into two large sections: a southeast area and a northwest area, which correspond with the two populations of dingoes.

But the study suggests the dingo fence is not responsible for the distinct eastern and western groups. Rather, those populations were already well-established 2,500 years ago.

Instead, another possibility is that dingoes arrived to different areas on the continent in two independent events, then remained apart because of Australia’s topography, including the Great Dividing Range and the Murray-Darling Basin.

“The signal is preserved across time, and the east-west separation or differentiation goes as far back as we can look,” says study co-author Yassine Souilmi, a biologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Peter de Kruijff.

Researchers were also surprised to see a genetic link between ancient dingoes living in southeast Australia and New Guinea singing dogs. This suggests the two species interbred with each other between 2,285 and 2,627 years ago and supports the idea that the canines arrived to the continent in two separate migrations. But it remains a possibility, researchers say, that New Guinea singing dogs originated from dingoes that traveled with humans from Australia to New Guinea.

The findings not only add to the understanding of one of Australia’s most iconic animals, but they may also help inform modern debates. Dingoes are controversial: Ranchers and landowners consider them pests and often kill them to protect their livestock. Conservationists, meanwhile, see them as vital apex predators that help maintain the balance of the ecosystem by preying on kangaroos, rabbits and cats.

New insights provided by the study—particularly the lack of evidence of interbreeding with domestic dogs—could influence rules around whether landowners can legally shoot dingoes, or whether the creatures should be protected as a native species.

“We’re hoping that people are going to stop killing the dingoes after seeing this study,” says study co-author Sally Wasef, a paleogeneticist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Catherine Naylor.

Mike Letnic, a conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales who was not involved with the research, echoed that sentiment, adding that the findings “put to bed the idea that dingoes are hybrids with no conservation value.”

“The results add weight to efforts to conserve dingoes, because it shows that they are a distinct group and that there has been much less hybridization than was previously thought,” Letnic tells the Guardian’s Graham Readfearn.

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