RECENT research suggesting coat colour cannot be used to distinguish dingoes from wild dogs would not affect current wild dog management programs, according to national wild dog facilitator Greg Mifsud.
A University of new South Wales study has found that animals assumed to be dingo-dog hybrids based on their coat colour and culled may have been pure dingoes.
The Centre for Ecosystem Science study found there is no coat colour that distinguishes dingoes from dingo-dog hybrids, a study involving UNSW Sydney has found.
“We actually found pure dingoes that had a brindle, black and tan, patchy or sable coat colour,” Dr Kylie Cairns, a conservation biologist from UNSW Sydney and co-author of the study said.
“So that’s showing that really dingoes are much more variable than we think and seeing an animal with an odd coat colour doesn’t immediately mean that it’s a hybrid.
“Using coat colour to decide what animals should be culled is not a very good idea.”
Dr Cairns said the work indicates that dingoes are more common in south-eastern Australia than previously thought and that coat colour shouldn’t be used to inform management decisions.
“Contrary to popular belief, dingoes can be a range of coat colours including brindle, patchy, sable, ginger, and black and tan.
“DNA testing from our study and others shows that most of the wild canids in Australia are either pure dingoes or have dingo dominant ancestry, feral dogs are extremely rare,” she said.
“Moving forwards, we should call a spade a spade or a dingo a dingo.
“The term wild dog should be retired and replaced with dingo, because that is what they are,” Dr Cairns said.
“We should stop assuming that wild dingoes are hybrids based on appearance.
“Current management strategies are aimed at minimising the impact of dingoes on livestock,” she said.
Dr Cairns said managers should be encouraged to explore non-lethal tools to protect stock from the impact of dingoes alongside targeted lethal management.
“Dingoes should be conserved, because they are our native top predator and perform important roles in Australian ecosystems.
“Management strategies should aim to balance the need to minimise stock losses with conserving dingoes in the landscape.”
Current management is not based on coat colour
However, Mr Mifsud said current wild dog management programs were about managing the impacts of dingoes and wild dogs, and were not based on coat colour.
“It (coat colour) has no bearing on it whatsoever, and if there are more dingoes out there than we think there are, does it really matter?
“If those dingoes are causing an impact, they will be managed regardless,” Mr Mifsud said.
“We don’t care what their genetics are, if they’re having an impact on primary production at all, or threaten agricultural assets like livestock or biodiversity, such as endangered species, they need to be controlled.
“Kylie Cairns keeps refusing to accept that our dog control programs are only delivered on the perimeters of national parks and public lands to prevent those dogs from causing impacts,” he said.
“But we are also preventing domestic dogs from entering the wild dog populations in those core areas – we’re actually assisting in limiting crossbreeding and hybridisation.
“Isn’t that a win-win?”
Mr Mifsud said wild dog management is undertaken on only about four percent of the public land mass in Victoria.
“So there is plenty of rooms there for dogs to live happily there and do whatever they need to do whether they are dingoes or wild dogs, but as soon as they come to the edge of those lands, to the public/private land interface, they will be controlled to manage their impacts.”
Integrated control already in place
Mr Mifsud said land managers are already encouraged to explore non-lethal tools to protect stock from the impact of dingoes alongside targeted lethal management.
“It’s about integrated control, and that integrated control will depend upon what the manager wants to implement, which can include guardian dogs, but ultimately we have to manage those populations at the interface and that’s what we are doing now.
“All of these dogs, whether they are dingoes or hybrids are predators by nature, are carnivorous and will attack livestock regardless, so they need to be managed,” he said.
He said land managers have said that without lethal control measures, guardian dogs would be ineffective.
The UNSW study follows 2019 research by the university and collaborators that found almost all wild dogs in NSW are dingoes or dingo-dominant hybrids, challenging the widely held view that pure dingoes are virtually extinct in the state.
The researchers said that in Australia, dingoes are typically believed to be ginger in colour, while unusual coat colours such as brindle (black and brown stripes) or sable (ginger with a black stripe along the spine) are widely put forward to be evidence of contemporary domestic dog hybridisation.
But the study, published in the Journal of Zoology, found that while 53 percent of dingoes have a ginger coat colour, 9pc were sable, 11pc black and tan, 14pc brindle, 5pc black, 1pc white and 6p were patchy (white with spots of ginger or black).
Researchers from UNSW, University of Sydney and University of Melbourne took part in the study.
They examined the relationship between coat colour and ancestry in wild dingoes by testing the genetic makeup of 1325 wild canids (animals belonging to the Canidae family, such as dingoes, domestic dogs and wolves) across south-eastern NSW.
About a quarter of the samples were from dingoes with no evidence of domestic dog ancestry and around three-quarters were dingoes with some domestic dog ancestry. They extrapolated that domestic dogs with no dingo ancestry are rare in the wild, representing less than 1.5pc of the population.
No distinguishable coat colour
There was also no coat colour that could distinguish dingoes with or without dog ancestry from each other, or from domestic dogs.
“The widely held idea is that a dingo is ginger animal with white socks and a white tail tip,” Michael Letnic, senior author of the paper and professor in conservation biology and ecosystem restoration at UNSW Science said.
“But a key finding of this work is that coat colour should not be used to assess ancestry in dingoes.”
The researchers suggest that other features such as floppy ears or a broad snout shape could be used to identify feral domestic dogs or recent dingo-dog hybrids.
The researchers are planning to use updated genetic techniques to look at dingo ancestry across Australia to uncover the origin of some of the coat colours.
“We want to examine whether these coat colours are ancestral or came from dogs originally but have been present in the population for 100 and 200 years,” Dr Cairns said.
“We are curious to see if coat colour is part of the natural selection and adaption in dingoes, or if there are other reasons for these coat colours.
“For example, the black coat colour in wolves came from dogs and is associated with increased immunity and so we want to look to see if there is a similar pattern in dingoes.”
Read the study in Journal of Zoology.