Dingo difficulties

5 minute read

From the discussion of L. C. Birch's paper, "Evolutionary opportunity for insects and mammals in Australia", in the edited volume The Genetics of Colonizing Species, edited by H. G. Baker and G. L. Stebbins, p. 212:

Waddington: At what date was the ordinary dog introduced into Australia? Dingoes were there before white men?
Birch: Dingoes probably came to Australia with the aborigines some millenia [sic] ago. The domesticated dog of the white man has been in Australia less than 2 centuries.
Mayr: Well, the dingo is a dog. If you go to the mountains of New Guinea you will see dogs which cannot be distinguished from dingoes. They do not bark. These dingo-like dogs are associated with the native villages and I would say that the dog or dingo came to Australia with one of the early waves of aborigines, whether this was 6000 or 12,000 B.C. or earlier.
Waddington: It is not a feral European dog?
Birch: It would be awfully hard to study this.
Mayr: You would need to wear chain mail.


I found that exchange very entertaining, but if I'm posting it I figured I'd better provide some pointers to recent work on dingo evolution. Tim Flannery (2003) attributed the arrival of the dingo in Australia to contacts with Lapita people between 4000 and 3500 years ago. It has been suggested that ancient Polynesian dogs were also of this type, represented archaeologically by the "Pukapuka dog" (Shigehara et al. 1993). Flannery also mentions the work of Gordon Corbett, who proposed that Australian lice had been transferred back to Asia on one or more dingoes at some point. This transfer occurred in ancient times, and requires that some people landed on Australia, picked up some dingoes, and schlepped them back to Indonesia.

Peter Savolainen and colleagues (2004) studied the mitochondrial DNA variation in dingoes and compared their sequences to dogs from populations throughout the world. They find that dingoes have a very circumscribed degree of mtDNA variation, with one major haplotype (A29) and several minor haplotypes that are one- or two- mutation variants of this one. The haplotype A29 is otherwise found only in Asian, Polynesian and Arctic dogs. Their conclusion has this:

Among domestic dogs, A29 was found only among East Asian, Island Southeast Asian, and American dogs, and the mtDNA types radiating from A29 in the minimum-spanning network were found almost exclusively in East Asia (11), strongly indicating an East Asian rather than Indian origin for the dingo ancestor. The estimated time for the founding of the dingo population, 5,000 yr ago, fits relatively well with the archaeological record of the region, with the oldest finds of dingo being 3,500 years old and the earliest finds of dogs on nearby islands being 3,500-year-old remains on Timor (7). An East Asian ancestry 5,000 yr ago suggests that the dingoes may have arrived in connection with the expansion from south China into Island Southeast Asia of the Austronesian culture, which involved domestic dogs, pigs, and chicken. According to the current theories, the expansion started 6,000 yr ago from Taiwan via the Philippines to Indonesia, where it was split into a westward and an eastward direction and had by 4,000 yr ago reached Timor (7, 21).
In conclusion, this study of mtDNA sequence variation among dingoes provides a number of clues from which a detailed picture of the origin and history of the Australian dingo can be derived. The dingo originated from a population of East Asian dogs. Type A29 was one of several domestic dog mtDNA types brought into Island Southeast Asia, but only A29 reached Australia. The dingo population was probably founded from a small number of animals, as the last trickle of domestic dogs through a series of bottlenecks, or even by a single chance event and has since remained effectively isolated from other dog populations. The dingoes may have arrived in connection with the expansion, starting 6,000 yr ago, from south China into Island Southeast Asia of the Austronesian culture. By this time, domestic dogs had existed for several thousand years (4, 11), and the present semidomestic state of the dingo can probably be attributed to a long existence as a feral animal. After >3,500 years of isolation, the dingoes represent a unique isolate of early undifferentiated dogs.

They also note that the A29 haplotype is found in the New Guinea "singing" dogs -- the feral dogs that Mayr mentions. The New Guinea dogs were reviewed by Janice Koler-Matznick and colleagues (2003). They can be distinguished from dingoes, both in terms of their behaviors and in their size -- the New Guinea dogs average smaller than the smallest dingoes. The two are apparently related to each other, and Balinese street dogs also include the dingo-like mtDNA sequence, although their variation is much higher than found in dingoes (Irion et al. 2005). Other "pariah" dogs with similar phenotypes (e.g., light tan coloration) exist in India, Phillipines, and Southeast Asia, but these may have evolved convergently with the dingo.

That's my quick dingo mini-review. I don't claim it's complete, but it gives some directions for further looking for those interested.


Birch LC. 1965. Evolutionary opportunity for insects and mammals in Australia. Pp. 197-214 in The Genetics of Colonizing Species, edited by Baker HG, Stebbins GL. Academic Press, New York.

Flannery TF. 2003. The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People. Grove Press, New York.

Irion DN, Schaffer AL, Grant S, Wilton AN, Pedersen NC. 2005. Genetic variation analysis of the Bali street dog using microsatellites. BMC Genet 6:6. doi:10.1186/1471-2156-6-6

Koler-Matznick J, Brisbin IL, Jr, Geinstein M, Bulmer S. 2003. An updated description of the New Guinea singing dog (Canis hallstromi, Troughton 1957). J Zool Lond 261:109-118. doi:10.1017/S0952836903004060

Savolainen P, Leitner T, Wilton AN, Matisoo-Smith E, Lundeberg J. 2004. A detailed picture of the origin of the Australian dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 101:12387-12390. doi:10.1073/pnas.0401814101

Shigehara N, Matsu'Ura S, Nakamura T, Kondo M. 1993. First discovery of the ancient dingo-type dog in Polynesia (Pukapuka, Cook Islands). Int J Osteoarcheol 3:315-320. doi:10.1002/oa.1390030410