For over two centuries, Australians have referred to the dingo as their continent's native dog. But as a new study shows, it's not really a dog at all, but rather a species in its own right.
The confusion started in the 18th century with a simple drawing and description made by Australia's first governor, Arthur Phillip. Since that time, scientists have lacked a proper scientific description of the animal. Typically, animals have an official description based on an actual specimen (and not just a "rudimentary" illustration) that's used to distinguish one species from another.
The new study, conducted by Mathew Crowther from the University of Syndey, corrects this oversight. Scientists now say that dingos are distinct from domestic dogs and a distinct form of canid. Consequently, scientists have resurrected the species name Canis dingo which was adopted in 1793 by a German naturalist.
Now, this is not to say that dingos and domesticated dogs don't have a common ancestor. They most certainly do. Dingoes were introduced to Australia around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, with genetic evidence suggesting dingos are descended from East Asian domestic dogs. But since that time, they've bred in isolation until the arrival of European settlers and their dogs in 1788. Since that time there's been a considerable amount of breeding going on between the two species, but pockets of "pure bred" dingos still exist.
Indeed, there are some serious consequences to the new designation. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports,
the lack of official status has meant dingoes are often confused with wild dogs, a pest to farmers because they kill livestock. Policies in parts of Australia support the conservation of dingoes but the extermination of "dingo-dogs".
From a mix of skeletons, skins and preserved specimens, most held in European museums, the team determined the physical characteristics that define a dingo – a longer snout, a large skull, a brushy tail and pointy ears – reported in the Journal of Zoology.
Which is an important distinction because dingos play a crucial role in regulating populations of animals such as kangaroos, wallabies and invasive red foxes. Scientists are now hoping that the renewed understanding of dingos will help to ensure their role in the ecosystem.
Image: John Carnemolla/Shutterstock.