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The trouble with dingoes

Dingoes, it seems, are never far from controversy.

A dingo on Fraser Island. Source: CC-BY-SA

There was the Chamberlain case, recent dingo attacks on Fraser Island, and the long-standing question as to whether dingoes are friends or foes of farmers and graziers.

And then there's the difficult issue of their correct name.

Taxonomists name species and other taxa so we can communicate accurately. This sounds entirely benign, and it usually is. But occasionally, the name a species is given has significant ramifications, and stirs passionate argument. So it is with the name of the dingo.

As usual, it's a relationship problem.

This is what we know. Dingoes belong in a near-global family, the Canidae, which includes around 35 species of dogs, wolves and foxes. They belong in the genus Canis, which includes domesticated and feral dogs, jackals, coyotes and wolves. They belong to the species ... and this is where it gets tricky. The species taxonomy of the genus Canis is not easy.

The dingo has been variously called Canis familiaris dingo (that is, it's regarded as a subspecies of Canis familiaris, the domestic dog), Canis lupus dingo (that is, it's regarded as a subspecies of Canis lupus, the grey wolf), Canis dingo (that is, it's regarded as a species in its own right, separate from both domestic dogs and grey wolves), or Canis familiaris (that is, it's not regarded as taxonomically distinct at all from the domestic dog).

Is the dingo a wolf? It depends who you ask. Image source: CC0

To make matters more complex still, the domestic dog itself is sometimes regarded as a species distinct from grey wolves (and hence called Canis familiaris), sometimes as a subspecies of the grey wolf (hence called Canis lupus familiaris), and sometimes as simply a domesticated grey wolf (hence called Canis lupus).

Many people wish taxonomists would just get their act together, decide what's correct, and settle the matter once and for all. But of course, it's not that simple. There are good reasons why the taxonomy of dogs, wolves and dingoes is complex, and there are no simple answers (or simple ways to get to an answer).

The key problem is that wolves, domestic dogs and dingoes are all quite recently evolved - they haven't had enough evolutionary time to become clearly and unambiguously distinct.

For example, recent estimates put the arrival of dingoes in Australia (and hence their separation from south-east Asian dogs) at between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago (the oldest-known bones have been dated to between 3,348 and 3,081 years old, while genetic evidence suggests they arrived a little earlier, possibly brought here by Toalean visitors from Sulawesi). Certainly the absence of dingoes from Tasmania indicates they were not in Australia 12,000 years ago, when Bass Strait formed.

So their separation from other dog lineages is evolutionarily very recent. This is reflected in their morphology, ecology and genetics. Dingo skulls, bones and behaviours are a little different from dogs and wolves, and they are genetically slightly different. But many species vary slightly. Does the fact that dingoes are only a little different from domestic dogs and wolves make them the same species, or are they different enough that they are best regarded as separate species? There is simply no unambiguously correct answer to this question.

How different is different enough? A short-haired chihuahua, clearly a breed of dog. But what if we found a wild population of short-haired chihuahuas on a remote island somewhere?

The result is controversy, as shown by a recent batch of scientific papers arguing for quite different taxonomies. Those who, perhaps for other reasons, wish to regard the dingo as a species in its own right array evidence of the differences from other dogs and wolves, while those who wish to regard dingoes as no more than a recent Australian dog introduction array evidence of their similarities. Neither is wrong.

And here's the nub of a problem.

The name - Canis dingo or Canis familiaris - matters. If the dingo is a separate species then a good case can be made for its protection under conservation legislation. If dingoes are merely wild dogs, then a good case can be made that they should have no protection. Which is it to be?

While taxonomy matters, it can't be expected to unambiguously solve this question. Taxonomists can (and do) study the complex patterns of variation in the genus Canis, and measure morphological, behavioural, ecological and genetic differences and similarities. What they can't do is to unambiguously derive from these measurements a fully objective, incontrovertible taxonomy, especially to address a problem that has nothing to do with taxonomy.

There is, in this case, perhaps one way out. While there is no absolutely objective answer to the question whether dingoes are or are not a separate species, we can still use a rule of thumb.

For example, there is general agreement that dingoes separated from Asian dog lineages around 5,000-10,000 years ago (and have diverged slightly since then). Well, many human lineages have been genetically quite well-separated for substantially longer periods of time. No-one (or very few) would argue that there are separate species of modern humans.

Applying the same standard as a rule of thumb would argue against regarding that there are separate species in the dog-dingo continuum. This is the view taken by the currently-agreed national taxonomy (the Australian Faunal Directory managed by the Australian Biological Resources Study on behalf of the taxonomic and biosystematic community), which lists the dingo as Canis familiaris.

So does this mean dingoes should not be protected? Of course not - that question is quite different and separate from the taxonomic one. It needs to be argued on its own merits, without trying to bring taxonomy in to help resolve it.

Meanwhile, dingoes will probably remain in the news, sometimes for all the wrong reasons.


To read more about the question of the best taxonomy for dingoes and their relatives:

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