Dog DNA in dingoes? There’s not as much as you think

Australia has four or five distinct populations of dingo, and none are crossbreeding to extinction, new research shows.

UNSW-based conservation biologist Dr Kylie Cairns led a study into 195,000 genetic markers in 391 captive and wild dingoes and found their lineage remains mostly intact.

Despite assumptions that dingoes are crossbreeding with dogs, the species’ genetic decline fails to show in the analysis.

In Victoria, 87.1% of sample dingoes were genetically pure; only 6.5% showed signs of a single crossover event.

In NSW and Queensland, more than half of those sampled had at least 99% dingo ancestry, and a fifth had evidence of one ancestral crossover.

Little evidence of dingo-dog interbreeding was found in other mainland states. At least four in five wild dingoes sampled from SA and WA had pure dingo lineages. In contrast, captive dingoes were more likely to be hybrids.

Cairns’ research also shows four distinct wild dingo populations on the Australian continent: an eastern population hugging the coastline from Bundaberg and south-east Queensland to Wollongong; a southeast population ranging from the NSW south coast inland to the Australian Alps and east of Melbourne; a single ‘Big Desert’ group concentrated near the SA-Victoria border; and a western population ranging across WA, the Northern Territory and much of Queensland outside established dingo fences.

Identifying these distinct populations, Cairns says, dispels the idea that hybridisation is the cause for differences between dingoes.

“Previous methods of [genetic] unit testing essentially assumed that all dingoes across the country were the same, or formed a single population, and therefore any differences that you saw in a dingo, say in Victoria compared to WA, was because the dingo was a hybrid,” Cairns says.

“When we have much larger amounts of data, so the 195,000 bits of DNA [to study], we can test that more robustly, and see that instead of there being only one type of dingo, there’s four, or five if you include the captive dingoes.

“And it’s much easier to be able to tell the difference between a dingo, a different type of dingo, and a dog.”

Cairns says better conservation practices – rather than current pest management approaches –for dingoes is important to protect the remaining, genetically distinct populations of the animal.

“The [Big Desert] population in western Victoria and southern SA appears to be under severe threat, there doesn’t seem to be very many of them,” she says.

“We may need to start thinking more about how we’re conserving, rather than just how we’re managing those. You don’t want to be losing any genetic diversity from a species, ideally, because genetic diversity helps adapt to the changing environment, or cope with disease.”

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