A new analysis helps to unravel the mystery of the Australian dingo’s origins by showing that it is probably descended from a wild dog rather than a domestic breed
22 April 2022
The Australian dingo’s genome is substantially different from modern dog breeds, suggesting the canines have never been domesticated in the past, a detailed analysis reveals.
The dingo is a type of dog that arrived in Australia around 5000 to 8500 years ago and now roams wild in most of the country. Some researchers believe it is descended from an ancient domestic dog breed that was introduced by Asian seafarers and then turned wild. Others, however, question whether dingoes’ ancestors were ever domesticated.
“Way back when I started this whole project, there was debate between myself and a number of other people about whether dingoes are just another domestic dog,” says Bill Ballard at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who oversaw the latest study.
Ballard and his colleagues began sequencing the dingo genome after winning a competition in 2017 to sequence the DNA of the “world’s most interesting” organism.
Their competition entry was a pure desert dingo called Sandy, who was rescued from the side of a road in central Australia when she was 3 weeks old and now lives in a sanctuary. “It’s rare to get access to a true wild, desert-born dingo,” says Ballard.
To do the sequencing, the researchers took skin and blood samples from Sandy. Then, they compared her genome with those of five domestic dog breeds: German shepherds, boxers, basenjis, Great Danes and Labrador retrievers.
They discovered that the dingo differs substantially from these breeds and is a genetic intermediate between domestic dogs and wild wolves. There is more genetic variation between dingoes and domestic dogs than there is between any two human populations, says Ballard.
This is probably because dingoes spent thousands of years cut off from other dog species, giving them time to evolve in their own unique way, he says. Modern domestic dogs didn’t arrive in Australia until 1788, when they were introduced by Europeans.
One major difference is that domestic dogs have evolved multiple copies of a gene called AMY2B that allows digestion of starchy foods. This is probably because they began eating rice after humans domesticated the crop around 10,000 years ago. Dingoes, in contrast, have a low-starch diet that mainly comprises marsupials and reptiles, and only have a single copy of this gene, similar to wolves and some Arctic dog breeds.
“This reinforces the notion that dingoes were never truly domesticated,” says Ballard. The dingo may have been introduced to Australia as a tamed wild animal, meaning one that has become accustomed to living alongside people but hasn’t been actively domesticated through selective breeding, he says. “It’s like how you can put a wild cat in a crate and bring it over [to a new geographic region] – it doesn’t mean it’s domesticated.”
The findings have implications for how dingoes are treated, says Ballard. In many parts of Australia, dingoes, feral domestic dogs and their hybrids are culled to prevent them from attacking livestock.
“Lots of farmers believe that if you see a dog that’s running around, there’s no difference between a dingo and a feral domestic dog,” he says. “But from a conservation perspective, knowing there is a really significant difference between them is important.”
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm5944
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