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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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Dingoes; Australian Wolves (updated from an earlier post)

I am away for a bit over two weeks and, instead of preparing new posts for that time, I have opted to update a couple of earlier posts, which are more than three and a half years old and which you may well have missed. I hope you find them interesting. This one first appeared in an earlier form on 25 June 2013. Back 'live' on Friday 18 August.

Most Australians would be bemused, to say the least, at the proposition that Australia is home to wolves, but detailed biochemical work, based on mitochondrial DNA analysis, 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. Even more recent work (2016) has muddied the waters a little by increasing the margin of error so that their arrival could have been somewhat earlier than that. It seems certain that they were never in Tasmania (for instance on the mainland Thylacines, Tasmanian Devils and Tasmanian Native Hens did not long survive their apparent arrival), so the earliest they could have arrived would have been 12,000 years ago, when Tasmania ceased to joined to the mainland. However, I think it is telling that the oldest known Dingo bone remains - too young to have fossilised - are less than 3,500 years old (from the Nullarbor Plains cave system).
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 might seem intuitive 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. If the Dingoes didn't arrive until recently, as the DNA is telling us, they must have either come with a late wave of settlers, who seem not to have existed, or with seagoing traders who regularly visited the north-western coasts in particular. The latter proposal is strengthened by close genetic ties of Dingoes with Taiwanese village dogs.

There have been suggestions by some, who really want the Dingo to have been here longer than that, that a painting of a Thylacine at Ubirr in Kakadu National Park in the Top End of the Northern Territory is actually a Dingo, but apart from the general body shape and posture, it even shows stripes on the hindquarters. (I was there last year, but frustratingly failed to notice it on the wonderful galleries, so have had to rely on Wikipedia for this image!) I have had it suggested to me that the 'Dingo' picture is 28,000 years old, but I can't find evidence for that; the issue however is moot.
Ubirr Thylacine; even though it certainly doesn't resemble a Dingo, it's a remarkable
snapshot of a then-living animal which was probably driven to extinction by the Dingo.
Courtesy Wikipedia.
So, are Dingoes native or feral Australians? I've struggled with this somewhat philosophical 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 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.
A recent experience of our own 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.

In Alice Springs they have become emboldened in recent times, having been driven into town by the drought of the first decade of this century. At the Telegraph Station Reserve on the northern edge of the suburbs there are now signs warning people to keep dogs under close supervision; a friend of ours had a pet killed by Dingoes there while she was present. This is no-one's 'fault', it's just what can happen when efficient predators are forced into close association with human habitation.
Dingo observing us - with no trace of apprehension on her part - at the
Alice Springs Telegraph Station Reserve.
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, although some graziers are coming to this view too; to date however they are still in a minority.

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

Dingo, Luritja Road, central Australia.
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I shall be away until 15 August and will not be able to reply to any comments
you make until after that.
I shall certainly do so however, so please check back.

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