A startling discovery: Commonly believed to be a breed of wild dog, scientists now consider the dingo to be a species in its own right. Photo: Neil Newitt
Since the arrival of westerners in Australia more than 200 years ago, the dingo has been known as Australia's native dog. But it turns out that our native mutt is not really a mutt.
For the first time scientists have confirmed the dingo is a species in its own right.
“The dingo is distinct from what we describe as a domestic dog; it's a distinct form of canid,” said Mike Letnic, a University of NSW ecologist.
First sight: The original dingo drawing from The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay. Photo: Supplied
The revelation comes after a group of Sydney scientists found there was no scientific description of the animal. In zoology it is typical for animals to have an official description, usually based on a specimen called a holotype, which is used to differentiate one closely related species from another.
Scientists had been basing descriptions of the dingo on a “rudimentary” illustration in a diary from 1789
“Everyone has based their descriptions on the drawing of a dingo in the journal of the first Australian governor, Arthur Phillip,” said Mathew Crowther, the research leader from the University of Sydney.
He said the lack of official status has meant dingoes are often confused with wild dogs, a pest to farmers because they kill livestock. Policies in parts of Australia support the conservation of dingoes but the extermination of "dingo-dogs". To determine exactly what makes a dingo a dingo, Dr Crowther and his team tracked down 19th century specimens that lived before interbreeding with European dogs became widespread.
From a mix of skeletons, skins and preserved specimens, most held in European museums, the team determined the physical characteristics that define a dingo – a longer snout, a large skull, a brushy tail and pointy ears – reported in the Journal of Zoology.
Dr Crowther said a dingo's appearance was more variable than people had assumed; coat colour could range from white to tan or black and tan.
While dingoes and domestic dogs had a common ancestor, the dingo had lived in isolation for more than 3000 years, Dr Letnic said.
Dr Crowther said dingoes' appropriate scientific classification was Canis dingo, as they appeared not to be descended from wolves, were distinct from dogs and were not a subspecies.