Dingoes, meet your long-lost cousins: New Guinea singing dogs and Highlandwild dogs.
A small population of wild dogs in the remote New Guinea Highlands have beengenetically matched to New Guinea singing dogs – a rare canid previouslythought to be extinct in the wild.
Only 200-300 singing dogs are alive in captivity today, all descendent fromeight dogs taken from the New Guinea Highlands more than 50 years ago.
The singing dogs are known for their unique vocalisations, described as a‘wolf howl with overtones of whale song’.
“Detailed DNA testing has confirmed that the Highland wild dog is a directancestor of the New Guinea singing dog,” says Dr Kylie Cairns, a conservationbiologist from UNSW Sydney and co-author of the study. The genetic testresults were published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy ofSciences (PNAS).
“Both canids are close genetic relatives to the Australian dingo – formingtheir own lineage unlike any other in the world.”
The findings come two years after a team of researchers encountered theHighland wild dogs in the Papua province of Indonesia.
Zoologist Mr James K ‘Mac’ McIntyre, who led the field research, has beeninvolved with New Guinea singing dog research since 1996. It has taken tworesearch expeditions to New Guinea highlands – first in 2016 then 2018 –before his teams were able to collect any biological samples.
“Initially we were searching for a dog that didn’t want to be found,” says MrMcIntyre, who is also the Director of Field Research at the New GuineaHighland Wild Dog Foundation. He describes the Highland wild dogs as ‘shy andreclusive’.
“The wild dogs reside in the rough rocky terrain above the tree line. We spentlong days in thin air and often cold rainy conditions.”
Over the span of two weeks in 2018, the research team managed to observe 18dogs in the wild. They studied the behaviour, demographics, and morphology ofthe animals – which look remarkably similar to dingoes.
The scientists also managed to take blood samples from three dogs in theirnatural environment: a small sample size, but enough for genetic analysis.They were the first dogs captured from the Papua Highlands in around 50 years.
The wild dogs’ nuclear genome – the part of DNA that holds the mostinformation – confirmed that the Highland wild dogs are the ‘original’ NewGuinea singing dogs. The research was led by Cenderawasih University in Papua,Indonesia, and the National Institutes of Health, United States. The findingsadd to a smaller DNA test on excrement samples from a 2016 expedition, whichMr McIntyre was also involved with.
The evidence of wild populations is welcome news to conservationists, who hopeto diversify the gene pool of the captive population.
“Many had feared the population was extinct, or heavily mixed with domesticdogs,” says Dr Cairns.
“Now that we know there is a wild population, programs can help diversify andconserve the captive population.”
The Oceanic family tree
Genetic tests from previous studies showed that New Guinea singing dogs areclosely related to Australian dingoes. They have a common, albeit now-extinct,ancestor.
The new findings confirm the Highland wild dogs are part of this uniquefamily.
“They are very closely related,” says Dr Cairns. “Sort of like sister groupsor cousins.”
This genetic family aren’t the same as domestic dogs or a type of dog breed –they belong to a distinct group that split off from dogs thousands of yearsago, before domestication occurred.
“One of the exciting things we found is that the three canids form their ownevolutionary lineage, separate from domestic dog breeds,” says Dr Cairns, whohas been studying dingoes and their genetics for 10 years.
“This unique lineage isn’t found anywhere else in the world – it’s purelyOceanic.”
In a 2017 study, Dr Cairns used molecular dating to find that dingoes likelysplit off from the New Guinea singing dog population about 6,000-8,000 yearsago.
“A long time ago when the oceans were lower, Australia was attached to theisland of New Guinea,” says Mr McIntyre. “One type of dog inhabited thiscommon landmass.
“When the oceans rose again, Australia separated from New Guinea. The dogsthat stayed in Australia evolved and adapted into today’s dingoes.
“The dogs that became isolated on the island of New Guinea evolved and adaptedto today’s New Guinea Highland wild dog – or as we now know, New Guineasinging dogs.”
While the study has shown that wild dog populations are persisting in the NewGuinea Highlands, a lot of questions remain – like how common or widespreadthey are.
“We know very little about these wild dogs’ natural history in the wild,” saysMr McIntyre, who has planned a follow-up research trip to New Guinea in 2021.“We have so much more to learn.”
Mr McIntyre hopes to study the wild dogs’ behaviours, their puppy and denningactivities, and sociability within their groups. If successful in livecatching the Highland wild dogs again, he and his team plan to take moresamples, physical measurements, and conduct veterinary examinations.
GPS collars – which enable the researchers to track each individual animal forup to 18 months – will also be attached to the wild dogs before their release.
Dr Cairns is particularly interested in understanding the genomic family, andthe implications that might have for Australia and our treatment of dingoes.
“We only have three samples from this West Papua population, so there’s a lotof work to be done in better understanding the population and comparing themto singing dogs and dingoes,” she says.
Dr Cairns was recently elected to be a coordinator of the newly-created DingoWorking Group, a team of dingo experts researching and promoting theconservation of wild canines. The working group sits within the InternationalUnion for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission’s (IUCN/SSC)Canid Specialist Group.
Dr Cairns hopes to fill some of the knowledge gaps about dingoes, New Guineasinging dogs and Highland wild dogs as part of her involvement with thisgroup.
“The evolutionary genetic study showed us that these populations aren’t justferal domestic dogs, nor are they breed dogs – they are something different,”she says.
“Exactly how different they are still needs to be uncovered.”
Image: Meet ‘Lady Foot’, a Highland wild dog native to New Guinea. Highlandwild dogs bear a striking resemblance to their dingo cousins across theArafura Sea. Photo: New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation.
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