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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Dingoes; Australian Wolves

Most Australians would be bemused, to say the least, at the proposition that Australia is home to wolves, but detailed biochemical work has confirmed that the Australian Dingo is indeed Canis lupus (subspecies dingo), derived from a semi-domesticated wolf in Asia some 6000 years ago and brought here by Asian sailors not much more than 4000 years back.
Dingo near Windorah, south-west Queensland.
This is a classic 'pure bred' Dingo but in truth there would be very few Dingoes without domestic dog genes today.
It seems 'obvious' that indigenous Australians would have brought Dingoes here, but having arrived some 50,000 - 60,000 years ago, there is no evidence that the first Australians travelled back and forward from Australia to Asia, and no reason for them to have done so. Dingoes didn't arrive with a late wave of settlers, but with seagoing traders who regularly visited the north-western coasts in particular.

So, are Dingoes native or feral Australians? I've struggled with this one for a long time, but of course there are no rules as to when an animal becomes 'native'; my own feeling is that 4000 years is probably too short a time for everything to have fully settled into a new balance, but plenty would disagree. The extinction on mainland Australia of Thylacines and Tasmanian Devils - marsupial carnivores which the Dingo would have competed with and quite possibly hunted - took place since the Dingo's arrival. The timing is too close to be coincidental, as is the fact that both these big native carnivores thrived in Dingo-free Tasmania - isolated 8000 years ago at the end of the last glaciation, before Dingoes arrived - at least until European settlement.
Tasmanian Devil Sarchophilus harrisii, Adelaide Zoo;
they didn't survive the advent of Dingoes on the Australian mainland.
Their rapid spread throughout the continent was doubtless assisted by Aboriginal Australians, who regularly domesticated young Dingoes as hunting and camp companions. Dingoes readily adapt still to human presence when not persecuted.

Bold, intelligent and inquisitive, Dingoes have learnt to scavenge around campgrounds,
though they are regularly shot around homesteads and stockyards.
Redbank Gorge campground, Western MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia.
Our own most recent experience with a Dingo was not a happy one. Camped at beautiful Redbank Gorge in the West MacDonnells, we returned from a long walk to find that a Dingo had torn holes in our tent and ransacked sealed containers looking for food; it wasn't smelling anything, as all our fresh food was locked away in a gas fridge, and the rest was in screw top plastic containers which it bit into. I emphasise that this was a most atypical situation; in my long experience of Australian bush camping, the only animals I've known attempt forced entry to a tent are goannas, or (exotic) mice and (native) rats, when they are experiencing a population boom. (Though I'm told that in Tasmania Brush-tailed Possums and even Tassie Devils can be a camping challenge on busy walking routes.) The problem here was previous campers who'd ignored ubiquitous warnings (and common sense!) and indulged themselves by feeding this Dingo, and leaving before the consequences came to bite them. 
Dingo on beach, Fraser Island, Queensland.
This is an area where visitor numbers and Dingo numbers are both high, and problems have arisen, again generally originating with irresponsible visitors (generally not the ones who eventually suffer!).

Once found throughout the mainland, Dingoes have largely retreated from the populous south-eastern corner, where their appreciation of sheep flocks was not reciprocated. Elsewhere despite constant and ferocious programs of shooting, trapping and poisoning they are still common. It is not uncommon to see Dingoes - mostly individuals or pairs - trotting near roads in remote areas, and to hear them howling at night, as the packs stay in contact and gather to hunt. 

Astonishingly, in the 1880s a 5600km dog-proof fence was built to isolate the south-eastern sheep lands from the Dingo 'bad lands' to the north and west.
Dingo-proof fence, courtesy Wikipedia.
The indicative distribution of 'pure' and 'hybrid' Dingoes is overly simplistic.
It is still maintained, though in large areas feral camels are defeating the efforts. To a large extent it still determines the boundary between sheep and cattle country in the Australian rangelands.

As pack animals hunting prey larger than themselves, Dingoes now fill the niche occupied by wolves (unsurprisingly!) in Eurasia and North America, and Cape Hunting Dogs in Africa. Their main large prey is various kangaroo species, and wombats in the south-east, though almost any smaller animal can be taken. They are probably important regulators of kangaroo populations, and seem to play a role in controlling rabbit and fox numbers where Dingo populations are healthy.

To my surprise, I've found myself coming to the view that, even though the Dingo is a recent arrival, it does play the role of top mammalian predator in the absence of the original ones, and should probably be permitted to do so to assist in control of excessive numbers of kangaroos and some pest species. I don't expect this view to meet universal acclaim however...

Regardless, this is a beautiful animal, now an integral part of the Australian landscape, doing what it does very well indeed. 

Dingo, West MacDonnells.


Susan said...

Very interesting indeed. I hadn't picked up on the work showing that dingoes are wolves nor how they arrived. Having seen some of the observations made by American wildlife rangers who are seeing wolves come back into territories where they have been absent for decades it is clear that the role of the top predator is greatly under-rated in terms of managing an ecological system. They make the point that not only do they keep the numbers of deer down to some extent, but more importantly, they move them on all the time, so that they don't overgraze favoured areas. Here in France wolves are returning across the Italian border. They will never make it back to where I live in the lowlands, but they will clearly re-colonise the mountains, much to the distress of sheep farmers there. So far very few wolves have had to be destroyed for sheep killing, but the compensation claims by sheep farmers are fantastically high (in terms of numbers of sheep they claim to be killed by wolves). The government pays up rather than get into a fight about allowing the hunting of wolves. No one mentions the packs of feral dogs in the same area. At present we have about 250 wild wolves in France, in more than a dozen packs. No one knows how many wild deer we have, but it is way too many due to the lack of a top predator and ever reducing habitat.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Susan; I'm glad you found it interesting - as I certainly do - and I welcome your input with regard to the role of top order predators in natural systems. There was some interesting stuff too in a very recent New Scientist, showing that even the presence of predators alters the behaviour of prey species, keeping them moving (as you say) and reducing reproductive success just by increasing stress, independent of actual predation. I watch the story of returning wolves in both Europe and North America with great interest.

Lynette Watson said...

Whilst you are happy to state that there is no evidence for the dingo's arrival prior to 4,000 years ago, I would also state that there is no evidence for the claim that they came with asian seafarers 4000 years ago. That has always been an "assumption", with no factual evidence, but well documented by the heavily cited writers.
Consider this - the dingo today still lives with the most ancient pre-domestication metabolism, not having the gene which forms the enzymes to digest starch or fat. If indeed it was domesticated in Asia, the first thing that would have occurred would have been the Asian domestic dog mutations to live beside domesticated man on his diet. Surely this is evidence that the original dingo, still around today, evolved in Australia prior to domestication - i.e. 30,000 years ago. Indeed recently carbon dated rock art from Arnhem land, at 28,000 years, came from caves which also depict dingoes in the art. We need to expand our minds on the anitquity and the genome of the ancient Australian dingo. We agree, a southern wolf derivative, but ancestor, not descendent of those Asian look alikes, which many erroneously call dingoes.

Ian Fraser said...

Hello Lynette, and thanks for taking the trouble to comment. I'm sorry this has been delayed; for some reason your posting got caught up in my spam filter, and I've only just found it.
Perhaps I should have expanded more on the research bases of my posting, and I apologise for not doing so - it's hard to strike the right balance between conciseness and sufficient background detail.
As you'd know, the 4,000 or so year ago arrival is based on mitochondrial DNA analyses; I'm happy to admit I'm not qualified to assess that work independently, but if you are, or you know of an appropriate study which rebuts those findings, I'd be very grateful if you could direct me to it.
I'm unfamiliar with the work on starch/fat enzymes, and again would be glad to read any references you could direct me too. I guess I'd be surprised if such a significant piece of evolution were to have taken place in such a short time anyway - and that wolves can't digest fat, or that semi-domestic wolves needed to make that adjustment - but as ever I'm happy to accept the science.
With regard to the rock art, I've always felt that those images could just as well represent Thylacines, but I don't suppose we'll ever know what the artist really saw.
And of course if we postulate an earlier arrival here, we need to explain its absence from Tassie. I'd be glad of your comments on this too.
If the dingo evolved here 30,000 years ago, from what did it evolve? A wolf of course, but where did it come from?
Again my thanks for your contribution and I look forward to further information from you.