Ancient DNA shows modern dingoes and dog breeds share little ancestry

A first-of-its-kind study into the ancestry and distribution of dingoes across Australia today has thrown up further evidence that modern dingoes share very little ancestry with modern dog breeds.

The research is based on a collection of 42 dingo specimens. The samples range in age from 400 to 2,746 years ago. In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the multidisciplinary team report their findings comparing the ancient DNA with that of modern dingoes, as well as ancient and modern dogs from around the world.

Ancient dingo jaw bone on black background
2,241-year-old female dingo mandible from Curracurrang, New South Wales. Credit: Sally Wasef.

It gives a glimpse into the genetic landscape of dingoes prior to European colonisation and since mixing with modern dog breeds.

“The samples we analysed represent the oldest ancient DNA recovered in Australia and indicate broad possibilities of future DNA and conservation work that could be carried out on dingoes and other animals,” says co-lead author Sally Wasef, a palaeontologist at the Queensland University of Technology.

Among the team’s findings, Wasef says, is confirmation that K’gari (Fraser Island) dingoes do not have any domestic dog ancestry, “proving they preserve their full ancestral heritage.”

K’gari is an island on the southeast coast of Queensland, about 200km north of the state capital Brisbane. But even in other parts of Australia, dingo genetics showed minimal mixing with domestic dog breeds.

“The DNA analysis also showed less interbreeding between dingoes and modern dogs than was previously thought, with our research confirming today’s dingoes retain much of their ancestral genetic diversity,” says co-lead author Yassine Souilmi from the University of Adelaide.

“Dingo populations are classified into east and west groups which were previously thought to have formed during post-colonial human activity,” Wasef says. “Our findings show, however, that dingoes’ population structure was already in place thousands of years ago and clarify the genetic heritage of dingoes, while highlighting the importance of using ancient DNA for wildlife conservation.”

“Dingoes hold significant cultural importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and play an essential role in the Australian ecosystem,” Souilmi adds. “Understanding their historical population structure helps us preserve the dingo’s role in Australian ecology and culture.”

Dingoes are believed to have diverge from other dogs 8,000–12,000 years ago. They made their way to the Australian continent more than 3,000 years ago, probably along with seafaring people.

Culling, trapping and shooting has seen dingo numbers across Australia drop to an estimated 10,000–50,000.

“Due to poor human behaviour that causes some dingoes to become habituated to seeking food from tourists, several problem dingoes have been culled [in K’gari], which is concerning given their small population size,” Wasef says.

“Dingoes are currently under threat from lethal culling programs, and our research highlights the importance of protecting populations in national parks and beyond,” Souilmi adds.

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