The New Guinea singing dog was thought to be extinct in the wild, but new genetic research suggests their distinctive howl still echoes in the highlands of the Oceanic islands, reports James Gorman for the New York Times.
Not seen in the wild by scientists since the 1970s, conservation biologists thought the only New Guinea singing dogs left on Earth were the 200 to 300 captive animals residing in zoos and sanctuaries, reports Michael Price for Science.
But anecdotal reports and a pair of photographs suggested a similarly tan-colored, medium-sized wild dog was roaming the mountainous terrain near a gold mine on Papua, the western, Indonesian half of the large island north of Australia.
“The locals called them the highland wild dog,” James McIntyre, president of the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation and co-author of the paper, tells the Times. “The New Guinea singing dog was the name developed by caucasians. Because I didn’t know what they were, I just called them the highland wild dogs.”
To find out what these highland wild dogs really were, McIntyre trekked into the rugged terrain surrounding the Grasberg Mine, one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines, in 2016. The expedition produced 149 photographs of 15 individual dogs as well as an array of fecal samples. Per Science, if one were trying to cast a pooch for the role of the New Guinea singing dog, the wild dogs looked, acted and sounded the part.
However, the fecal samples didn’t have enough genetic material for a proper analysis, so in 2018 the researchers returned and collected blood samples from three of the animals, according to the paper which was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These three samples were used to sequence the highland wild dogs’ genomes. The researchers then compared the dogs’ nuclear DNA with 16 captive New Guinea singing dogs, 25 dingoes as well as more than 1,000 individuals from 161 additional breeds.
The genetic analysis suggests that these highland wild dogs are in fact part of a wild population of New Guinea singing dogs. Crucially, the newly revealed wild population is much more genetically diverse than captive singing dogs, which descended from just eight individuals and are severely inbred, reports Katie Hunt for CNN.
“Assuming these highland wild dogs are the original New Guinea singing dogs, so to speak, that really gives us a fantastic opportunity for conservation biology,” Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist at the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute and co-author of the study, tells Ed Cara of Gizmodo. “It’ll give us a chance to reintroduce the original genetics of these dogs into this conservation population.”
Both the wild dogs and the captive singing dogs are close relatives of the Australian dingo, and relatively distant relatives of domestic dogs. The New Guinea singing dog’s closest domesticated relatives are East Asian breeds including the chow chow, Akita and shiba inu, according to Science. This connection suggests that the singing dog may have split off from the ancestors of these Asian breeds some 3,500 years ago when humans and a few canine companions migrated to Oceania, per the Times.
Ostrander tells the Times that the genome of the wild singing dogs offers researchers a “missing piece that we didn’t really have before,” that may help clarify the history of dog domestication.