Dingo genome suggests Australian icon not descended from domestic dogs

New analysis helps unravel the mystery of the Australian dingo’s origins by showing it’s likely descended from a wild dog rather than a domestic breed


April 22, 2022

Sandy the dingo had his genome sequenced after winning a contest

Barry Eggleton/Pure Goofy Sanctuary

The Australian dingo’s genome is significantly different from modern dog breeds, suggesting that canids were never domesticated in the past, a detailed analysis reveals.

The dingo is a type of dog that arrived in Australia around 5,000 to 8,500 years ago and now roams in the wild across much of the country. Some researchers believe it descends from an ancient breed of domestic dog that was introduced by Asian sailors and then turned feral. Others, however, wonder if the ancestors of dingoes were ever domesticated.

“A long time ago when I started this whole project, there was a debate between me and a number of other people about whether dingoes were just another house dog,” says Bill Ballard at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, which supervised the latest study.

Ballard and his colleagues began sequencing the dingo’s genome after winning a competition in 2017 to sequence the DNA of the “most interesting in the world” organism.

Their entry in the competition was a pure desert dingo named Sandy, who was rescued from a roadside in central Australia at 3 weeks old and is now living in a sanctuary. “It’s rare to have access to a true wild dingo born in the desert,” says Ballard.

To do the sequencing, the researchers took skin and blood samples from Sandy. Next, they compared its genome with those of five domestic dog breeds: German Shepherds, Boxers, Basenjis, Great Danes and Labrador Retrievers.

They found that the dingo differs significantly from these breeds and is a genetic intermediate between domestic dogs and wild wolves. There is more genetic variation between dingoes and domestic dogs than there is between two human populations, Ballard says.

That’s likely because dingoes have spent thousands of years cut off from other dog species, giving them time to evolve in their own way, he says. Modern domestic dogs did not arrive in Australia until 1788, when they were introduced by Europeans.

A major difference is that domestic dogs have evolved multiple copies of a gene called AMY2B which allows the digestion of starchy foods. This is likely because they started eating rice after humans domesticated the crop around 10,000 years ago. Dingoes, on the other hand, have a low-starch diet that includes mostly marsupials and reptiles, and have only one copy of this gene, similar to wolves and some Arctic dog breeds.

“It reinforces the idea that dingoes were never really domesticated,” says Ballard. The dingo may have been introduced to Australia as a tame wild animal, meaning an animal that has become accustomed to living alongside people but has not been actively domesticated through selective breeding. , he said. “It’s like you can put a wildcat in a cage and bring it [to a new geographic region] – it does not mean that it is domesticated.

The findings have implications for how dingoes are treated, Ballard says. In many parts of Australia, dingoes, wild domestic dogs and their hybrids are slaughtered to prevent them from attacking livestock.

“A lot of farmers think if you see a dog running, there’s no difference between a dingo and a domestic wild dog,” he says. “But from a conservation perspective, it’s important to know that there’s a really significant difference between them.”

Journal reference: Scientists progress, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm5944

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Bette C. Alvarado