It’s time to take dingoes out of the doghouse.

Almost all wild canines in Australia are genetically more than half dingo, anew study led by UNSW Sydney shows – suggesting that lethal measures tocontrol ‘wild dog’ populations are primarily targeting dingoes.

The study, published today in Australian Mammalogy , collates the resultsfrom over 5000 DNA samples of wild canines across the country, making it thelargest and most comprehensive dingo data set to date.

The team found that 99 per cent of wild canines tested were pure dingoes ordingo-dominant hybrids (that is, a hybrid canine with more than 50 per centdingo genes).

Of the remaining one per cent, roughly half were dog-dominant hybrids and theother half feral dogs.

“We don’t have a feral dog problem in Australia,” says Dr Kylie Cairns, aconservation biologist from UNSW Science and lead author of the study. “Theyjust aren’t established in the wild.

“There are rare times when a dog might go bush, but it isn’t contributingsignificantly to the dingo population.”

The study builds on a 2019 paper by the team that found most wild canines inNSW are pure dingoes or dingo-dominant hybrids. The newer paper looked at DNAsamples from past studies across Australia, including more than 600 previouslyunpublished data samples.

Pure dingoes – dingoes with no detectable dog ancestry – made up 64 per centof the wild canines tested, while an additional 20 per cent were at leastthree-quarters dingo.

The findings challenge the view that pure dingoes are virtually extinct in thewild – and call to question the widespread use of the term ‘wild dog’.

“‘Wild dog’ isn’t a scientific term – it’s a euphemism,” says Dr Cairns.

“Dingoes are a native Australian animal, and many people don’t like the ideaof using lethal control on native animals.

“The term ‘wild dog’ is often used in government legislation when talkingabout lethal control of dingo populations.”

The terminology used to refer to a species can influence our underlyingattitudes about them, especially when it comes to native and culturallysignificant animals.

This language can contribute to other misunderstandings about dingoes, likebeing able to judge a dingo’s ancestry by the colour of its coat – which cannaturally be sandy, black, white, brindle, tan, patchy, or black and tan.

“There is an urgent need to stop using the term ‘wild dog’ and go back tocalling them dingoes,” says Mr Brad Nesbitt, an Adjunct Research Fellow at theUniversity of New England and a co-author on the study.

“Only then can we have an open public discussion about finding a balancebetween dingo control and dingo conservation in the Australian bush.”

Tracing the cause of hybridisation

While the study found dingo-dog hybridisation isn’t widespread in Australia,it also identified areas across the country with higher traces of dog DNA thanthe national average.

Most hybridisation is taking place in southeast Australia – and particularlyin areas that use long-term lethal control, like aerial baiting. Thislandscape-wide form of lethal control involves dropping meat baits filled withthe pesticide sodium fluoroacetate (commonly known as 1080) into forests viahelicopter or airplane.

“The pattern of hybridisation is really stark now that we have the wholecountry to look at,” says Dr Cairns.

“Dingo populations are more stable and intact in areas that use less lethalcontrol, like western and northern Australia. In fact, 98 per cent of theanimals tested here are pure dingoes.

“But areas of the country that used long-term lethal control, like NSW,Victoria and southern Queensland, have higher rates of dog ancestry.”

The researchers suggest that higher human densities (and in turn, higherdomestic dog populations) in southeast Australia are likely playing a key partin this hybridisation.

But the contributing role of aerial baiting – which fractures the dingo packstructure and allows dogs to integrate into the breeding packs – is somethingthat can be addressed.

“If we’re going to aerial bait the dingo population, we should be thinkingmore carefully about where and when we use this lethal control,” she says.

“Avoiding baiting in national parks, and during dingoes’ annual breedingseason, will help protect the population from future hybridisation.”

Protecting the ecosystem

Professor Mike Letnic, senior author of the study and professor ofconservation biology, has been researching dingoes and their interaction withthe ecosystem for 25 years.

He says they play an important role in maintaining the biodiversity and healthof the ecosystem.

“As apex predators, dingoes play a fundamental role in shaping ecosystems bykeeping number of herbivores and smaller predators in check,” says Prof.Letnic.

“Apex predators’ effects can trickle all the way through ecosystems and evenextend to plants and soils.”

Prof. Letnic’s previous research has shown that suppressing dingo populationscan lead to a growth in kangaroo numbers, which has repercussions for the restof the ecosystem.

For example, high kangaroo populations can lead to overgrazing, which in turndamages the soil, changes the face of the landscape and can jeopardise landconservation.

A study published last month found the long-term impacts of these changes areso pronounced they are visible from space.

But despite the valuable role they play in the ecosystem, dingoes are notbeing conserved across Australia – unlike many other native species.

“Dingoes are a listed threatened species in Victoria, so they’re protected innational parks,” says Dr Cairns. “They’re not protected in NSW and many otherstates.”

The need for consultation

Dr Cairns, who is also a scientific advisor to the Australian DingoFoundation, says the timing of this paper is important.

“There is a large amount of funding currently going towards aerial baitinginside national parks,” she says. “This funding is to aid bushfire recovery,but aerial wild dog baiting doesn’t target invasive animals or ‘wild dogs’ –it targets dingoes.

“We need to have a discussion about whether killing a native animal – whichhas been shown to have benefits for the ecosystem – is the best way to goabout ecosystem recovery.”

Dingoes are known to negatively impact farming by preying on livestock,especially sheep.

The researchers say it’s important that these impacts are minimised, but howwe manage these issues is deserving of wider consultation – includingdiscussing non-lethal methods to protect livestock.

“There needs to be a public consultation about how we balance dingo managementand conservation,” says Dr Cairns. “The first step in having these clear andmeaningful conversations is to start calling dingoes what they are.

“The animals are dingoes or predominantly dingo, and there are virtually noferal dogs, so it makes no sense to use the term ‘wild dog’. It’s time to calla spade a spade and a dingo a dingo.”

Image: dingoes in the snow. photo by michelle j photography_2_2

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