Dingo may be world's oldest dog

Thursday, 18 March, 2010
Bob Beale

Australia's dingo and the New Guinea Singing Dog may be the world's oldest dog breeds, according to a major new genetic study into the domestication of the animal dubbed man's best friend.

The international study published in the journal Nature suggests that those two breeds are the most closely related to wolves and may be most like the original domesticated dog as it was across Asia and the Middle East thousands of years ago, according to one of the 37 authors of the study, Dr Alan Wilton, of the UNSW School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences.

"This paper examines the domestication of the dog from the wild wolf using genetic differences," Dr Wilton says. "48,000 sites in the dog genome were examined in hundreds of wolves, almost a thousand dogs from 85 modern breeds of dog and several ancient dog breeds.

"The data suggest most dogs were domesticated in the Middle East, which was the cradle of agriculture 10,000 of years ago, rather than in Asia as had been suggested previously.

"It also shows dingoes, which have been separated from other breeds of dog in Australia for the past 5,000 years, are the most distinct dog group with most similarity to wolves."

The dingo and New Guinea Singing Dog stand out as being most different from all other breeds of dogs and closer to wolves than other breeds.

Other ancient breeds include Chow-Chow, Basenji, Akita, Chinese Shar-Pei, Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute. They could possibly have arisen from a separate domestication event to modern domestic dogs, which were mainly developed in the early 19th Century in Europe.

"They can be divided into mastiffs (for example, bulldogs), gun dogs, spaniels, herding breeds, sight hounds, scent hounds, retrievers, small terriers, toy dogs and flock guard breeds," says Dr Wilton.

To gather all of the results from many dog breeds and wolves from many locations, a worldwide effort was mounted.

Dr Wilton and Jeremy Shearman - from the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences and the Ramaciotti Centre for Gene Function Analysis at UNSW - have been working on dingoes and methods to differentiate between pure dingoes and crosses between domestic dogs and dingoes. They contributed the genetic data from seven dingoes, which is a small amount of data but makes a large contribution to the paper. The data from all samples was analysed together at Cornell University and UCLA.  

Media contacts:
Dr Alan Wilton - 02 9385 2019, 0422 736425
Bob Beale UNSW Faculty of Science media liaison - 0411 705 435