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Episode 243: Down Under with Dingos

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Native Dog Australia Canine Dingo Wild Zoo

Dingoes are emblematic of Aboriginal Australia and the vast, wild, red sand outback. The Western world first became aware of these charismatic canids when they were sighted with Australian Aborigines as far back as 1623, long before the colonization of Australia by Europeans [1]. They are hardy, sandy colored dogs that closely resemble domestic dogs, which isn’t surprising given that most scientists now agree that the dingo was once a domesticated dog that was brought over on ships during the expansion of Polynesian cultures out of the South East Asian Islands and eventually went wild [2].


The Dingo are particularly controversial canids for many reasons, not least their name! the accepted scientific name has changed somewhat over the years, causing many arguments between scientists, with some wanting the dingo to be considered a separate species, Canis familiaris dingo, and others wanting dingoes to be considered alongside dogs as Canis familiaris [3]. Dingoes frequently interbreed with domestic dogs, leading to hybrids that have a lot of scientists concerned for the future of the species. Up until 2004, the dingo was classed as least concern by the IUCN, but in 2008 was reclassified as vulnerable as numbers of ‘pure’ dingoes were found to be falling due to crossbreeding with domestic dogs. In 2018 however, the dingo was classed as a feral dog and completely removed from the red list. There are still a lot of questions and debate: what even is a dingo? How do we conserve them? How do we manage them? How did they get to Australia and when? Were they responsible for extinction of other animals when they arrived? What does their future look like?

Classification and evolution

The date of arrival of dingoes in Australia, much like their taxonomy, is a source of big debate amongst scientists. Anthropology has provided us with a lot of information about the arrival of dingoes and their relationship with Aborigines, with rock art and folk stories heavily portraying the dingo as a common animal living alongside the first people. The dingo appears in multiple spiritual tales, including the Giant Devil Dingo, who is a friend and helper of Aboriginal people [4]. 

Rock painting from the Laura region of Queensland depicting an ancestral person and a dingo (image from science.org)

Carbon dating of dingo bones found in Madura cave puts the arrival of dingoes at 3500 years ago [5], although genetic data puts their first arrival in Australia at 18,300 years ago, although we still don’t exactly know how they got there! 

As recently as 2020, scientists analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of 27 ancient canids whose remains were found in the Yangtze River basin in China and identified that the genetics of these specimens closely matches that of present-day dingoes in Australia [6]. So how exactly did they make it all that way? Well, no dingo remains have been found in Tasmania which means that dingoes must have arrived around 12000 years ago, after sea levels rose and split the island from Australia. More genetic and archaeological evidence has shown that dingo ancestors spread across mainland Southeast Asia and into Australia before it was isolated by changing sea levels, perhaps along with domesticated animals common in Polynesian culture, such as the chicken, pig, and dog [7].

Dingoes are close genetically to domestic dogs like chow-chow and sharpei, but there is a strong argument from an analysis of their ecology, behaviour, and genetics that they belong to a unique clade that sits somewhere between domestic dogs and wolves. Currently, there are 2 genetically distinct subpopulations identified in Australia, the north-western and south-eastern populations [8]. There are still a lot of questions about current genetic testing and how accurate it is in determining how much of a dingos’ genome is made up of domestic dog DNA, which is important for conservation prioritization and strategy. A really big problem with this however, is that we just don’t truly know what a ‘pure’ dingo is, so how can we compare wth the dingoes we see today! 

There was a long-held suspicion that the arrival of the dingo led to the extinction of legendary Australian species including the Thylacine, the Tasmanian devil and the Tasmanian native hen, due to the lack of fossil evidence of dingoes on Tasmania, the timing of dingo arrival and the extinction events.  But the blame can’t be put entirely on the dingo, if at all: human settlements and agriculture began to increase at the same time, and better hunting technology and intensive resource use likely helped to drive the other species to extinction alongside dingo predation [9]. 

Range and habitat 

The dingo is considered an apex predator across most of Australia, due to its adaptability and hardiness. They inhabit a wide range of habitats including temperate areas, alpine moorlands, arid deserts, and tropical wetlands. Although they were once abundant everywhere in Australia, the introduction of agriculture and especially the so called ‘dingo fence’, along with poisoning and trapping, drove them to extinction across Southern Australia. Today they are limited numbers in the arid areas of Western Australia, but they are considered to be common in Northern Australia [10]. 

 They are generalist eaters and so prey on a wide range of different animals, and they have been recorded swapping between different prey types depending on availability of different species, and even switching to human provided food if needed. Dingoes have even been observed scavenging on stranded marine animals, like whales and turtles! [11] This makes them very resilient to changes in the abundance of their prey, although there is a worry among scientists that the dingoes changing diets, perhaps to human food like that left in garbage cans, could seriously affect the stability of food webs across Australia [12]. 

The occurrence of the dingo across Australia (Image from ‘A management plan for the dingo in Northern Australia)

Physiology and Adaptation facts

Dingoes are medium sized dogs with a short, bristly coat that ranges anywhere from tan/ginger to a darker orange-brown color, although most people would say that any dog with a patchy or brindled coat is a dingo-dog hybrid. Most people consider the true dingo to have a ‘yellow’ or ‘tan’ coat with five ‘white points’ on the feet and tip of the tail. 

There is still a lot more sleuthing that scientists need to do to better identify hybrids. A common technique in the past was to measure the size of the skull, but this can only really be done accurately after death, which is not ideal if you’re looking to conserve a species and avoid unnecessary deaths! Genetic analyses are common today, but as a ‘pure’ dingo has never been clearly identified, there isn’t a standard to compare levels of interbreeding against. Some scientists suggest using museum samples of dingo pelts to compare to modern dingo samples to determine levels of interbreeding, but needless to say, the issue is pretty complicated! 

The classic dingo colouration with a yellow/tan coat and five white points on their fur, often considered to the only ‘pure’ dingo. Image by Stephen Jackson, taken from Allen et al, 2018.

Controversial canid conservation: what’s the deal with the dingo?

So, we know the dingo gets pretty controversial taxonomically and genetically speaking, but their conservation story is no less complicated! 

Australia has a fairly comprehensive conservation policy in place called the Environment and Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPCB) of 1999. Currently, due to the parameters a species must fit into to be considered under the protection of this act, dingoes and other wild canids in Australia are not eligible. There are considered native, due to the fact that they were known to be present before the arrival and colonization of Europeans, but their numbers are not low enough (at least at the moment!) to be considered for protection under the EPBC, although some scientists believe that they could soon be considered vulnerable if numbers carry on declining, and reintroductions have been considered for some areas where dingoes are absent. But one big complicating factor comes back to this: what is a dingo? 

Many researchers suspect that hybridization with dogs is on the increase, meaning the ‘pure’ dingo numbers could be considerably less than we think, and that the single biggest threat to the dingo is the hybridization with dogs. Its likely wild dogs that have some dingo genes will never be eligible for conservation interventions, and currently the IUCN does not recommend dingo reintroduction, despite the fact that large areas of Australia have lost their dingo populations. On top of this, Australian law makes it illegal to sell or transfer dingoes around the country, so if reintroductions of dingo populations were ever to be considered, the law would have to change first before it could even be considered. If there were large populations of wild dogs, most scientists would be against the reintroduction of dingoes into these areas to try and reduce the risk of hybridization. To complicate matters even further (as if things weren’t complicated enough!) there is a lot of social conflict surrounding the dingo. They need a major image makeover! 

Anyone remember the ‘dingo ate my baby!’ case? This was the case of infant Azaria Chamberlain, who went missing from her family’s campsite in 1982, with her mother Lindy telling everyone that a dingo had taken her. Sadly, Lindy spent 30 years in prison before police found evidence in a cave that in fact, little Azaria had sadly been killed by a dingo pack. This case doesn’t help the plight of the dingo, painting them as baby snatching monsters. Many rural communities are against the presence of dingoes due to the fear that they will prey on their livestock, and there are also concerns that dingoes could prey on endangered native animals. As a result, dingoes are lethally controlled with poisoning and shooting, and often they are persecuted during bounty hunts [12]. 

But as with most ecosystems, there are often serious consequences of removing apex predators. This is where Australia’s largest, unintended natural experiment comes to aid of the dingo: the dingo barrier fence. 

In the 1st half of the 20th century a 5500km fence was built, splitting New South Wales and Southern Australia off from the rest of the continent. The aim of this was to prevent dingoes getting into valuable sheep grazing land, with those few that do sneak through being shot or poisoned. This unintentionally created a huge natural experiment, allowing researchers to compare flora and fauna in the presence and absence of an apex predator, which could be the savior of the controversial canid. 

An interesting study published as recently as 2021 [13] used drones, camera trap footage and surveys to compare the animals and plants on both sides of the fence and found very clear evidence that there is a big difference. As was long recorded, the presence of dingoes suppressed the populations of kangaroos and emus, which was massively beneficial to small mammals and created a very different composition of plants. By predating on herbivores like the kangaroo and emu, the dingoes keep the level of over grazing to a stable level, allowing more plants to mature and different species to take hold, creating a more diverse habitat. This in turn creates more homes and food for a diversity of species. There was also evidence that dingoes kept numbers of feral cats and pigs and foxes down, helping to protect native fauna. This is a common phenomenon seen in nature called the mesopredator release hypothesis. 

Mesopredators are smaller predators that are not considered apex, such as foxes or mink. In the absence of an apex predator, such as the dingo, these smaller predators often go through an explosion in numbers, threatening the stability of food chains as they chow through prey populations to feed their increasing population. Apex predators suppress these mesopredators through a few mechanisms, including:

  1. Direct killing, through aggression or to protect habitats. 
  2. Competition, killing prey that the mesopredator also eats
  3. Fear: the presence of the apex predator causes changes in the behavior of mesopredators, meaning they avoid the area and spend more time watching for the apex predator and less time eating or breeding. 

This has been documented very clearly in Australia, where feral cats and red foxes have caused populations crashes in species like quolls and freshwater turtles, whose nests are raided for the high energy eggs. When dingoes are around, there are a lot less foxes and cats and numbers of the endangered native species are more stable. Although dingoes have been documented preying on these species, they are not believed to threaten their numbers in the same way foxes and other invasive species do. 

There is still some controversy (are we surprised at this point!) over the role of dingoes in the environment, with some studies raising concerns that dingoes could affect endangered native species. But there is substantial evidence that dingoes do have an important role to play and shouldn’t be killed and excluded from habitats without thinking. In this study, the authors concluded that dingoes are having significant impacts on the environment and the food chain and in the face of increasing calls for more dingo control, the government should stop and really think before allowing this. They also argued that whether a dingo is considered ‘pure’ or not, they seem to fill the same ecological niche of keeping the food chain in balance, and so are worthy of protection and population monitoring. Not to mention the cultural relevance they have for Aboriginal peoples, these controversial canids are important and misunderstood, and worthy of love and respect for their place in the natural world. 

An artists depiction of wildlife either side of the dingo barrier fence Image taken from Mills et al (2021)

Conservation organizations, heroes and tips!


  • This is a dingo sanctuary and research center that was set up in 1990 in the Macedon Ranges. 
  • They aim to educate, research, preserve and reverse misconceptions about the dingo. 

What can you do?

  • If you live nearby, visit the Australian Dingo Foundation center, and learn all about dingoes whilst supporting them and their conservation efforts. They even run dingo encounter tours. 
  • They have a shop with cool gifts like plushies, hats, mugs and car stickers. 
  • If you can, sponsor a dingo!
  • Educate friends and family about the importance of the dingo and try and bust some of the misconceptions around them. 
  • Like and follow them on Instagram and spread the word!


[1] Shipman, P. (2019) ‘What the dingo says about dog domestication.’ The Anatomical Record, 304, pp 19-30

[2] Savolainen, P. Leitner, T. Wilton, A.N. Matisoo-Smith, E. and Lundeberg, J. (2004) ‘A detailed picture of the Australian Dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA.’ PNAS, 101(33), pp 12387-12390

[3] Smith, B.P. Cairns, K.M. Adams, J.W. Newsome, T.M. Fillios, M. Deaux, E.C. Parr, W.C.H. Letnic, M. Van Eeden, L.M. Appleby, R.G. Bradshaw, C.J.A. Savolainen, P. Ritchie, E.G. Nimmo, D.G. Archer-Lean, C. Greenville, A.C. Dickman, C.R. Watson, L. Moseby, K.E. Doherty T.S. Doherty, T.S. Wallach, A.D. Morrant, D.S. and Crowther, M.S. (2019) ‘Taxonomic status of the Australian dingo: the case for Canis dingo Meyer, 1793.’ Zootaxa, 4564(1), PP 173-197

[4] Roughsey, D. ‘The giant devil dingo’, 1973.

[5] Balme, J. O’Connor, S. and Fallon, S. (2018) ‘New dates on dingo bones from Madura cave provide oldest firm evidence for arrival of the species in Australia.’ Scientific Reports, 8(1), pp9933

[6] Zhang, M. Sun, G. Ren, L. Yuan, H. Dong, G. Zhang, L. Liu, F. Coa, P. Min-Shan Ko, A. Yang, M.A. Hu, S. Wang, G.D. and Fu, Q. (2020) ‘Ancient DNA evidence from China reveals the expansion of pacific dogs.’ Molecular Biology and Evolution, 37(5), pp 1462-1469. 

[7] Oskarsson, M.C.R. Klutsch, C.F.C. Boonyaprakob,U. Wilton, A. Tanabe, Y. and Savolainen, P. ‘Mitochondrial DNA data indicate an introduction through Mainland Southeast Asia for Australian dingoes and Polynesian domestic dogs.’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 279(1730), pp 967-974

[8] Cairns, K.M. (2021) ‘What is a dingo- origins, hybridisation and identity.’ Australian Zoologist, pp 1-16

[9] ‘Johnson, C.N. and Wroe, S. (2003) ‘Causes of extinction of vertebrates during the Holocene of mainland Australia: arrival of the dingo, or human impact?’ The Holocene, 13(6), pp 941-948

[9] Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory, ‘A management strategy for the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) in the Northern Territory of Australia 2006-2011.’ (2017)

[10] Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory, ‘A management strategy for the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) in the Northern Territory of Australia 2006-2011.’ (2017)

[11] Behrendorff, L. Leung, L.K.P. McKinnon, A. Hanger, J. Belonje, G. Tapply, J. Jones, D. and Allen, B.L. (2016) ‘Insects for breakfast and whales for dinner: the diet and body condition of dingoes on Fraser Island (K’gari).’ Scientific Reports, 24(6), pp 1-12

[12] Allen, B. Allen, L.R. Ballard, G. Jackson, S.M. and Fleming, P.J. (2017) ‘A Roadmap to Meaningful Dingo Conservation.’ Canid Biology and Conservation, 20(11), pp 45-56

[13] Mills, C. Wijas, B. Gordon, E. Lyons, M. Feit, A. Wilkinson, A. and Letnic, M. (2021) ‘Two alternate states: the shrub, bird and mammal assemblages differ on either side of the Dingo Barrier Fence.’ Australian Zoologist

Massive Thank You to Rachael Da Silva from the UK! Please follow her on Instagram and her wildlife artwork at tilly_mint08

September 08, 2021
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