The dingo is a free-roaming wild dog unique to the continent of Australia, mainly found in the outback. Its original ancestors are thought to have arrived with one of the waves of human settlement thousands of years ago, when dogs were still relatively undomesticated and closer to their wild Asian grey wolf parent species, Canis lupus. Since then, living largely apart from people and other dogs, together with the demands of Australian ecology, has caused them to develop features and instincts that distinguish them from all other canines. Dingoes have maintained ancient characteristics that unite them, along with their closest relatives from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, into a taxon named after them, Canis lupus dingo, which separate them from dogs classified as Canis lupus familiaris. A dingo's natural habitat can range from deserts, to grasslands and on the verge of forests. They cannot live too far away from water and they normally settle their homes in dens, deserted rabbit holes, and hollow logs.
Dingoes play an important role in Australia's ecosystems; they are apex predators and the continent's largest terrestrial predator. Because of their attacks on livestock, dingoes and feral domesticated dogs are seen as pests by the sheep industry and the resultant control methods normally run counter to dingo conservation efforts. The cattle industry may benefit from the predation of dingoes on rabbits, kangaroos, and rats.
Today, it is estimated that the majority of the modern "dingoes" are also descended from more recently introduced domestic dogs. The number of these so-called dingo hybrids has increased significantly over the last decades, and the dingo is therefore now classified as vulnerable.
Dingoes originated in China 18,000 years ago
The dingo came to Australia via southern China, and much earlier than previously thought, says research.
The dingo (Canis lupus dingo) arrived possibly 18,000 years ago in Australia, via China. (Credit: Wikimedia)
THE DINGO (Canis lupus dingo) first appeared in Australia's archaeological records in 3500-year-old rock paintings in the Pilbara region of WA, but the new evidence suggests they were roaming Australia long before that.
DNA samples from domestic Asian dog species and the Australian dingo have shed light on how the iconic canine arrived on Australian soil.
According to a study by an international research team, genetic data shows the dingo may have originated in southern China, travelling through mainland southeast Asia and Indonesia to reach its destination anywhere between 4600 and 18,300 years ago.
Published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study also debunks the previously held belief dingoes traveled to Australia via Taiwan and the Philippines, making several sea crossings.
"Clearly, the land route is much more feasible for dogs than the sea route," says Dr Alan Wilton, a geneticist from the University of NSW, Sydney, and one of the researchers involved in the study.
The research also suggests the New Guinea singing dog, a smaller version of the dingo, travelled along the same land route to arrive in New Guinea.
The geneticists took mitochondrial DNA samples from more than 900 domestic dogs across Asia - south China, southeast Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines and Taiwan - as well as pre-European samples from Polynesia and the Australian dingo, to make genetic comparisons.
The results show domestic dogs came from southern China over 10,000 years ago. The most likely story, say the researchers, is that dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs then dispersed to their destinations via a separate route to the dogs that arrived with Polynesia's first people 3000 years ago. They also made the journey much earlier.
"This is huge for the dingo. This study really confirms an enigma which has been with us with dingos all the time: where did the animal come from, or more specifically, how did it get here?" says Lyn Watson, co-founder of the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre near Melbourne. "We never really bought the story that it came by boat."
Dr Bret Heath, a biologist from Central Queensland University, says while the study doesn't fill all the gaps in our knowledge about how the dingo made it to Australia, the DNA evidence is compelling: "Mitochondrial DNA is most useful in studies of closely related organisms in low abundance, possibly adapting rapidly to new or different habitats - and hence displaying a rapid mutation rate."
Perhaps the most important element of the study, says Bret, is the light that it sheds on the human origins of the Polynesian culture.
Despite a sparse archaeological record for dog species in southeast Asia and Polynesia, there is a direct link between the spread of the Neolithic culture, Austronesian languages and the arrival of dogs in the region. But the researchers claim the dingo arrived in Australia before the Neolithic period, possibly during early trade between pre-Neolithic groups.
"The dispersal of dogs is also linked to the human history of the region," they write, which may add to our knowledge about "the geographical origins of the Polynesian population and its Neolithic culture, and the extent of contact between the pre-Neolithic cultures of Australia with the surrounding world."
They admit there is more work to be done to find out how the dingo was introduced to Australia, and whether it arrived as a domestic or wild dog.
Theoretical dingo migration routes
Distribution map of Australian dingoes: The black line represents the Dingo Fence
Possible distribution of the dingo (red): The red area in Papua New Guinea shows the possible distribution of the Hallstrom dog.