Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated by humans, evolving from a group of wolves thousands of years ago. But when it comes to Australian dingoes, exactly where they fit into the family is still up for debate, according to retired Penn State anthropologist Pat Shipman.
For most animals, hybridization does not occur between closely related species. When there is an exception, the offspring are usually infertile, such as when female horses and male donkeys produce mules.
On the other hand, many canid species – including wolves, dingoes, and dogs – can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. This makes it challenging to define species boundaries in canids.
“Indigenous Australians understood that there was something different about the dingoes and the colonial dogs,” said Shipman. “They really are, I think, different animals. They react differently to humans. A lot of genetic and behavioral work has been done with wolves, dogs and dingoes. Dingoes come out somewhere in between.”
Domestic dogs made their Australian debut in in 1788 with the first 11 ships of convicts. At this time, dingoes were already present on the continent, along with aboriginal Australians who arrived about 65,000 years ago. Today, many dingoes have domestic dogs in their ancestry.
According to fossil evidence, dingoes came to Australia at least 4,000 years ago, and Shipman believes that this date may be actually turn out to be even earlier.
“Part of the reason I’m so fascinated with dingoes is that if you see a dingo through American eyes you say, ‘that’s a dog,'” said Shipman. “In evolutionary terms, dingoes give us a glimpse of what started the domestication process.”
Dingoes have a “basic doggy look” even though they are not dogs, explained Shipman. They differ from dogs in both behavior and genetics, and are more like wolves in their relationships with humans.
Domestic doggs were evolving at a time when humans began growing food and moved to a diet containing large amounts of starch from maize, rice, potatoes, or wheat. While wolves and dingoes have very few of the genes for starch digestion, the dog’s genome adapted to tolerate it.
Indigenous Australians stole dingo puppies from their dens and raised them, yet these puppies generally left human homes at maturity and went off to breed and raise offspring. This demonstrates that their ability to closely bond with humans is limited.
“Aboriginal Australians were not well-regarded as holders of knowledge or special skill when Europeans came to the continent,” said Shipman. “So, no one thought to ask them about dingoes. Even recently, asking aboriginals for their scientific or behavioral knowledge really was not common.”
Regardless, aboriginal Australians have a long history of living with dingoes in their lives. Many people argue that dingoes are just dogs – strange dogs, but just dogs, said Shipman. However, aboriginals would disagree.
Since dingoes exhibit behaviors that fall somewhere between wolves and dogs, and possess a slight ability to tolerate living in captivity, Shipman concluded that a dingo is simply a wolf on its way to becoming a dog, that never got there.
The study is published in the journal Anatomical Record.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer