Conservation and preservation of an Australian icon - the dingo

A project undertaken at the Department of Physiology, Monash University, and supervised by Dr Shae-Lee Cox

The Australian dingo is currently endangered and threatened with extinction. The threat is predominately due to hybridization, inbreeding, hunting, government ‘wild dog’ eradication programs and loss of genetic fitness. There are no current conservation strategies that will reduce the rate of possible extinction.

Dingoes are now considered to be native Australian mammals that are protected in many regions because they probably play a vital role in ecosystems. However, hybridisation presents a conundrum for wildlife managers and legislators with respect to both defining taxa and enacting or enforcing conservation measures. Whilst it may be possible to maintain island populations of pure dingoes, a new approach is necessary for defining dingoes in the face of introgression with domestic dogs and environmental change including persecution.

The dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is a primitive dog that evolved from a wolf (Canis lupus pallipes/C.l. arabs) more than 6,000 years ago in Southern Asia. The dingo migrated to Australia somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago possibly with the assistance of the Aborigines.

Annihilation by humans is not the only threat of extinction for the dingo. Hybridisation with domestic dogs is rapidly diluting the dingo gene pool. Genetic studies from the University of New South Wales predict that in some regions only 20% of the dingo population are pure bred i.e. do not possess any dog genes. The introduction of dog genes into the dingo population threatens to change/eradicate the unique characteristics of the Australian dingo. The uniqueness of the dingo and it’s importance to the Aboriginal people and Australian ecological systems make saving this species an important and urgent task. Features that distinguish the dingo from the domestic dog include its inability to bark. Instead, dingoes vocalise by howling. Dingoes only have one breeding cycle per year (unlike dogs which have two) and their skull morphology differs from the domestic dog. Because of hybridization and eradication programs, Canis familiaris dingo is a subspecies in danger of losing its uniqueness. Unless measures are implemented now, the extinction of the pure dingo seems inevitable in less than 50 years.

Ex-situ conservation strategies such as gene banking and assisted reproduction (e.g. Artificial insemination) can assist in the prevention of species extinction and loss of population genetic diversity. Sperm banking and artificial insemination have been very successful for the domestic dog. Because of the similarities between the domestic dog and the dingo the successful transference of procedures for the establishment of a Dingo semen bank is highly likely.

The aims of this project are to;

  1. Establish an Australian data base recording all known information, pedigree details, and DNA records relating to dingoes currently held in captivity (personal care, zoos, conservation parks etc.).
  2. Establish a national gene bank of frozen semen collected from males that are classified as elite or genetically diverse, as identified from DNA studies. This semen store would act as a national security reserve and also as a source of genetic material for selected assisted breeding programs.
  3. Initiate a research study to gain an understanding of the reproductive function and performance of Australian dingoes (the female reproductive cycle, ovulation induction, behavioural cues associated with reproduction, mate preference, rearing of pups and sex ratio in litters). This information will be invaluable for captive breeding management, particularly with the use of artificial insemination and monitoring populations in the wild.

For more information on this project please contact Dr Shae-Lee Cox (Shae.Cox@med.monash.edu) or Carly Woodd (Carly.Woodd@med.monash.edu).

 

Fig. 1. The dingo (Canis lupus dingo)