A project undertaken at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, and supervised by Matthew Crowther
Restoring the ecological role of top predators is an urgent global issue for biodiversity conservation. Recent research shows that dingoes, Australia’s largest terrestrial predator, have beneficial effects for biodiversity conservation by dampening the impacts of invasive predators. Despite these benefits, dingoes have ambiguous status. Dingoes have only been in Australia for <5000 years, are a pest because they kill livestock and are subject to extermination programs, but are considered by some laws and many people to be a native species. Their status is also clouded by hybridization with feral dogs and confusion about how to distinguish ‘pure’ dingoes from dog-dingo hybrids. The lack of an adequate species description hampers efforts to identify and conserve populations of dingoes and prevents development of clear policies for their management.
We have resolved the identity of the dingo by nominating and describing a new type specimen, collected by the French Baudin expedition to southern Australia between 1801 and 1803. This specimen was unlikely to have an ancestry subjected to hybridisation. We have also established a suite of morphological diagnostic features separating dingoes from dogs by using a combination of archaeological and pre 1900 specimens. Our study of early European explorers’ reports, and skins collected in the 1800s, demonstrates that “pure” dingoes can be any combination of yellow/brown, white, black, black and tan, and sable. Only brindle animals could definitely be identified as hybrids. We have also quantified dingo variation, and can demonstrate an increase in dingo size throughout time.
Our results have implications for wildlife and land managers on what constitutes a modern dingo, as well as the study of domestication and adaptation in wild canids.