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Wild dog of Australia
Few animals in Australia have been more despised and subject to myth and misunderstanding than the dingo.
It was not until 1966 that the first major study into Australia's largest carnivore was undertaken.
The C.S.I.R.O. team studied animals in both dry desert regions and in the south eastern woodlands.
The dingo was thought to have originally come to Australia with the Aborigines some 30-40,000 years ago but recent research is casting doubt on this theory.
Apparently no dingo remains have been found that are older than about 4,000 years and this suggests that they arrived much later than was previously thought. DNA research has shown that the 'mother of all dingoes' lived about 5,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown that the arrival of the dingo in Australia coincided with the development of a new type of tool among the human population. There are suggestions that this tool technology was brought south by people from India and that the dingo is a descendant of the Indian plains wolf.
Other studies suggest the dingo may have originated in southern China. The 'out of China' theory holds that the dingo could have arrived between 4,600 and 18,300 years ago. This spread of dates is far too extensive to be of any use in working out how the dingo first arrived.
Prior to interbreeding with domestic dogs, dingoes were all genetically very similar. Studies conducted across the country, found that all pure bred dingoes were only 1 mutation away from the main type. All dingoes probably descended from a very small original number and may have even come from the litter of a single female.
The dingo is regarded as a pest species by farmers and they are shot, trapped and poisoned in most areas.
The dingo is an intelligent, alert and cunning animal and it is very unlikely that attempts to destroy the species will succeed. With the introduction of domesticated dogs came inevitable cross breeding and now there are few, if any, pure bred dingo left in the wild. Scientists believe that 80% of modern day dingoes are now hybrids. The pure bred dingo could be extinct within the next 50 years. At the time of the C.S.I.R.O. study it was believed that 90% of dingoes in arid areas were pure bred so the change has been very swift indeed.
Dingoes do not usually bark like ordinary dogs but they howl (somewhat like wolves do) to communicate. Although the dingo had started to evolve in a different way to
domestic dogs Canis familiaris, they are still close enough genetically to inter-breed and are still considered the same species although the dingo had the
scientific name Canis lupus dingo. This has now been changed to just Canis dingo and recognises the dingo has a separate lineage to wolves.
Dingoes are usually solitary but seem to congregate more at breeding time, April to May. Pairs form at this time and pups are usually born between July and September.
A typical dingo litter is between 5 and 7 pups but as many as 14 pups have been seen on rare occasions. The pups are usually hidden in remote secluded dens and the breeding pair work together to raise the pups until late summer when the male moves away and the pups start to become independant.
Dingoes are territorial and have a loose social organisation. They do seem to live in separate groups and howl and scent mark to keep other groups out of a territory. It was once thought that they travelled hundreds of kilometres to obtain food but radio tracking shows that they remain within a defined territory and travel much shorter distances than folklore suggested.
Aggression and fighting between dingoes seems to be rare with dominant animals using body posture to keep subordinates in line.
Dingoes usually hunt alone but due to their habit of congregating in small groups from time to time, they are able to tackle much larger prey and can hunt animals like kangaroos and wombats.
Dingoes inhabit all the mainland states of Australia but never managed to get to Tasmania. It is thought that the extinction of Tasmanian devils and Tasmanian tigers on the mainland was a direct result of the introduction of the dingo.
Dingoes are not usually a threat to humans but there have been some fatalities of children and there was one historic account of a pack of dingoes threatening a lone cyclist in the goldfields.
It must be remembered at all times that they are wild animals and they should never be approached.
Anyone travelling to South East Asia (and Thailand in particular) will note domesticated dogs (yellow pariah dog) that are very similar in appearance to the dingo.
New evidence is showing that removal of dingoes from areas encourages the expansion of mid-level introduced predator species like cats and foxes. This leads to the mass extermination of small native species. If dingoes remain the top predators in an area then small native animals do much better. Cats, for example, can eat 30 small animals a day and there are estimated to be 15 million feral cats in Australia.
There is an on-going debate about whether dingoes should be considered an introduced species due to the longevity of their tenure but there is no doubt that they do control fox and cat numbers. The wholesale removal of dingoes from the wild will undoubtedly mean that more small native species will become extinct.
Dingoes are not generally a major problem to cattle farmers but they are a threat to sheep. One solution being successfully trialed by some sheep farmers are maremma guardian dogs. They are only part of the solution but it is better that the complete eradication of the dingo which is after all, an Australian icon.
The 7 year C.S.I.R.O. study showed that dingoes with enough native food or with access to plentiful rabbits and rodents are much less likely to attack stock as smaller game is usually taken in preference to domestic stock. As little a .5% of the dingoes diet consisted of sheep or cattle when native prey was plentiful but this increased to 4% during droughts. At times when large numbers of stock die and become carrion the dingoes diet can reach 27% of domestic stock but this is achieved by scavanging and not predation.
Some cattle stations are now allowing dingoes to co-exist with cattle. The results are surprising as fodder around water holes is increasing and cattle losses are not as great as in places where dingoes are being shot and poisoned. This is thought to be the result of a more stable pack structure and it has great promise for the long term survival of the dingo as a species.
Studies with wolves in North America have shown that stable packs actually reduce breeding and control predator numbers. In places where hunting is frequent and packs are broken up, the restrictions on breeding are removed and wolf numbers actually increase. This probably applies to dingoes as well.
When dingoes are removed from an area, other species such as rabbits, rodents and feral pigs increase and this results in loss of fodder for domestic stock.
Many farmers still see the dingo as the enemy but it is becoming increasingly clear that the dingo is needed for the long term sustainability and stability of the land.
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