Almost all wild dogs in Australia are actually dingoes, according to a new genetic study. And it’s not just a semantic issue.
The vast majority (99%) of animals considered to be “wild dogs” in Australia are in fact “pure” dingoes or canines which, in terms of genetic makeup, are predominantly dingoes. This is the conclusion of a analysis of more than 5000 DNA samples of “wild dogs” across the country. Of the remaining 1%, about half were predominantly canine hybrids and the other half were true wild dogs.
The findings challenge the view that pure dingoes are virtually extinct in the wild. “We don’t have a wild dog problem in Australia“Says Dr Kylie Cairns, conservation biologist at UNSW Science. “In reality, they are simply not established in nature.“.
Also, for Brad Nesbitt of the University of New England and co-author of the study, there is an urgent need tostop using the term “wild dog” and start calling them dingoes again.
Excessive control of a native species
As said above, it’s not just a question of semantics. For several years, the Australian authorities have been trying to control populations of “wild dogs” using aerial bait. The idea is to drop pieces of meat filled with sodium fluoroacetate (a pesticide commonly known as 1080) into forests by helicopter or plane.
However, dingoes are native Australian animals ”and many people don’t like the idea of exerting lethal control over native animals“, Continues Dr Cairns. Another point: the dingoes play an important role in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health.
“As top predators, these animals can control the number of herbivores and small predators“, Explains Professor Letnic, co-author of the study. “The effects of apex predators can spread throughout ecosystems and even extend to plants and soils“.
Previous research by this same researcher has also pointed out that removing dingo populations can lead to increased numbers of kangaroos. This, again, can have dramatic repercussions on the rest of the ecosystem.
Rethinking ecosystem protection
While the study found that dingo-dog hybridization is not widespread in Australia, it also identified areas across the country with higher traces of dog DNA.
Most of the hybridization takes place in the South East Australia (higher human densities), and in particular in areas which use long-term lethal control. Conversely, dingo populations are more stable in areas that use less lethal control, such as western and northern Australia. 98% of the animals tested were pure dingoes.
In other words, the aerial bait technique tends to fracture the structure of dingo packs, ultimately allowing dogs to fit inside.
“We need to have a discussion about whether killing a native animal, which has been shown to have ecosystem benefits, is the best way to go about ecosystem recovery.“, Emphasizes Dr Cairns. “If we are to throw aerial bait, then we should really think more carefully about where and when we are using this lethal control.“.
“Avoiding baiting in national parks and during the annual dingo breeding season, for example, will help protect these populations from future hybridization.“, Concludes the researcher.