Our Canine Cousins: The Dingo
In just a handful of areas in Australia lies what is left of the last ancient living link between the wolf and hundreds of man-made breeds of dogs. The Dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is commonly known as an Australian wild dog and due to the country’s varying climate and regions; the dingo adapts itself dependent on habitat.
A medium-sized animal, the dingo is a light, athletic and elegant mover with excellent agility, speed and stamina. Its coat varies from where it lives with mountain dingoes having a much thicker coat than those in northern and central Australia.
The dingo is predominantly ginger or shades of, from sandy yellow to red ginger although small percentages are black with tan-white markings or near white. [private_level]Pure-bred dingoes have white markings on their feet, tail tip and chest with some ginger ones having a black muzzle which fades with age. Any variation on the above indicates hybridisation with domestic dogs.
A hugely individualistic, sensitive and intelligent animal, the dingo lives in loose groups where it will hold a territory and remain there to live, breed and feed. It has a strong instinct to hunt with even a small animal running triggering this. They usually hunt by night either alone or in family units. The dingo is primarily a carnivore and an opportunistic hunter so will eat anything that is available to them from rats, birds, lizards, kangaroos and some farm animals. Its diet also consists of insects and plant material.
The dingo is unique to other canines in that it will only produce one litter a year with the breeding season falling between March and June. It is during this time that they become even more territorial with aggressive behaviour more prominent as dingoes bond with their mates for life, so will become highly protective of them. A litter consists of between four and five puppies that are often found in the hollow of a tree and protected from all sides but these are frequently targeted by snakes.
Although the dingo is regarded as an early ancestor of the modern domestic dog, it has a number of unique traits which have ensured its survival over thousands of years. The dingo doesn’t bark but uses a howl, cough and bark-howl to communicate instead. This complex howling vocabulary is used in a host of situations and includes a purr. It also has the ability to turn on its wrists, rotate the head almost 360 degrees and has scent glands most notably in the tail, which all play important roles in hunting. The dingo can slightly dislocate its hips as well enabling it to squeeze through small spaces, a vital aid in the survival process.
The ultimate origin of the dingo is uncertain. However, DNA research of fossils indicates that it first arrived in Australia around 3,500 years ago. It is suggested that the dingo descended from a very small number of dogs that were brought to the country from Indonesia some 1,500 years earlier. The dingo evolved to withstand the Australian environment and developed the necessary physique to capture available prey.
They were originally kept by some Australian native groups as an emergency food source and were used as living blankets on cold nights but the dingoes natural instincts took over seeing them turn savage and were returned to the wild, where they spread rapidly across the country. During this time, the animal is thought to have contributed to the Tasmanian tiger’s (Thylacine) demise on mainland Australia with dingoes competing for food and eating it.
Numbers of the dingo flourished even more when European settlers brought livestock such as rabbits and sheep onto land and after losing most of their animals to the dingo, the relationship between man and the wild dingo quickly deteriorated.
This grew so bad that dingoes were trapped, shot on sight and poisoned, culminating in the Dingo Fence being build during the 1880s to keep the animal out of the arable farmlands of southeast Australia. The problems didn’t stop there though as sensational and negative media coverage pushed humans and dingoes further apart when the true root of the problem were feral cats and foxes.
In the past, persecution by man was the greatest threat to the dingo but today this has changed to the wild dog. The two are genetically different yet close enough to interbreed. The dingo outnumbered the feral dog years ago and would either have avoided or killed it.
But this is not the case in modern times. The number of feral dogs has increased dramatically and lone dingoes will readily join a feral dog pack especially during the breeding season when there are no other dingoes around. This results in hybridisation and the dilution of the pure dingo begins.
The situation is so critical for Australia’s top order predator that its desperate plight parallels that of the Northern hemisphere gray wolf. The findings of studies proved the species critical state with the DNA of hundreds of wild dingoes from across Australia showing that only 20% were pure-bred. It has also been predicted that wild populations of Australian dingoes may go extinct within 50 years unless steps are taken to prevent cross-breeding with domestic and wild dogs. Two organisations in Australia have been assisting in this for a number of years. The Australian Dingo Conservation Association (ADCA) and Australian Native Dog Conservation Society (ANDCS) keep wild dingoes in captivity to ensure their survival as there is no other safe place for them to habitat in the wild.
The ADCA is to also commence a captive breeding programme for the pure dingo after seven years of research.
The dingo is an integral part of Australian ecology and natural heritage.
It is to the country what the lion and tiger are to Africa and India respectively. This ancient canine is what domestic dogs originated from and with careful preservation it will grace Australia for years to come.