INTO THE WILD: John Cooper on his Nymboida property with his dingo clan.
INTO THE WILD: John Cooper on his Nymboida property with his dingo clan. Adam Hourigan

Study shows dingoes evolved into unique species

A NEW study that shows dingoes are a uniquely Australian species rings plenty of bells for two Clarence Valley locals with close knowledge of the species.

The study, published in the animal taxonomy journal Zootaxa, claimed dingoes are part of an "ancient dog lineage" that diverged 5000 to 10,000 years ago and has evolved separately in Australia. This divergence occurred prior to the period of the development of intense agriculture and the diversification of modern dog species.

Nymboida's John Cooper has trapped and lived with dingoes for many years. He features in an ABC television promotion playing the station tune on a harmonica as a howling dingo joins in.

John Cooper and his dingoes: Nymboida's John Cooper lives with wild dingoes on his property.
John Cooper and his dingoes: Nymboida's John Cooper lives with wild dingoes on his property.

He said there was so much about dingoes that was different to domesticated dogs and recognised many of the findings in his own observations.

"Dingoes don't bark, unless they're really excited. Most of the time they communicate with howling," Mr Cooper said.

"And they have a different type of bark, it's a raspy type of yapping."

He believed dingoes should be protected because they are the only species in the wild putting environmental pressure on foxes and cats, which decimate indigenous wildlife.

Flinders University professor and paper co-author Corey Bradshaw said the status of the dingo should be changed and placed under protected species legislation.

"Dingoes play a vital ecological role in Australia by outcompeting and displacing noxious introduced predators like feral cats and foxes," he said. "When dingoes are left alone, there are fewer feral predators eating native marsupials, birds and lizards.

"Dingoes can also increase profits for cattle graziers, because they target and eat kangaroos that otherwise compete with cattle for grass in semi-arid pasture lands."

Wild dog trapper and shooter, Bill Crisp, also said the new study was on point with his observations of dingoes. He said one example was his observation that true dingoes have evolved to synchronise with their prey animals.

"When it's dry, kangaroos and wallabies don't breed," he said. "Prey is scarce. So rather than breed up and wipe out all their prey, the dingo cuts its numbers back too until the seasons improve."

He said dingo bitches reach breeding age at around 18 months and an alpha female will not allow other younger females to breed in her territory, killing rivals and their pups.

"Wild dogs are totally different," Mr Crisp said. "They reach sexual maturity at five months and have their first litters then. They have litters whatever the season's like. They're absolute breeding machines."

The new study looked at dingo characteristics such as skull structure, vocal communication and behaviour, which determined made it a separate species.

It said while dingoes bark, it is a different behaviour to domesticated dogs, occurring when the dog was under threat or as part of "howl choruses".

"This contrasts with domestic dogs, which bark in seemingly all situations, during agonistic interactions, when alarmed, at feeding times, or when they are socially isolated," the paper said.

There has been scientific dispute about the status of dingoes. Recently the Australia Museum concluded the dingo was not a separate species but a "feral population of an ancient breed of domestic dog that was brought to Australia by humans" about 4000 years ago.

But the Zootaxa study showed there were more differences than similarities between dingoes and domesticated dogs.

The study's lead author, Dr Bradley Smith, from Central Queensland University, said the study showed dingoes had developed separately from other dog species and independent of humans.

"The dingo has been geographically isolated from all other canids, and genetic mixing driven mainly by human interventions has only occurred been occurring recently," Dr Smith said.

"Further evidence in support of dingoes being considered a 'wild type' capable of surviving in the absence of human intervention and under natural selection is demonstrated by the consistent return of dog-dingo hybrids to a dingo-like canid throughout the Australian mainland and on several islands.

"We have presented scientifically valid arguments to support the ongoing recognition of the dingo as a distinct species (Canis dingo), as was originally proposed by Meyer in 1793."

The legal status of dingoes is important to their future as the situation in Western Australia reveals.

Because WA legislation considers the dingo a wild feral dog, humans can kill it without seeking permission in many places.

And in South Australia the government has just announced funding to restore the infamous dingo proof fence, a 19th Century wild dog barrier stretching across southern Queensland and South Australia.

"There is no more sort of ambiguity regarding its status as a seperate species," Professor Bradshaw said.

"People have lumped it in with regular dogs and ... with the generic wild dog.

"It really is a fair dinkum Australian species and has been for many thousands of years."

Dingo howls ABC theme: Dingo howls ABC theme
Dingo howls ABC theme: Dingo howls ABC theme