A team of explorers from UNSW and Britain has discovered a colony of wild St Bernard dogs within a remote mountain range in southern Siberia – a remarkable find given St Bernards were previously thought only to be native to Switzerland.
More importantly, fears for the breed’s survival have recently become intense. Populations have been shrinking due to changing modern attitudes to dogs, with smaller breeds becoming more popular and displacing large, apex animals like St Bernards.
Sir Richard Penrose, the leader of the expedition, expressed delight at his discovery: “There have been very real fears that St Bernards would soon be extinct,” he said.
“They’ve gone out of fashion, unable to compete with newer breeds like Spoodles and Cavoodles. In effect, their urban habitat is shrinking, and without concerted action many people are warning that we could face a future without these wonderful big dogs.
“But the discovery of a wild colony has changed all that,” he said.
“This is the biggest discovery since the coelacanth or the Wollemi Pine,” said UNSW Professor Alison Cripper – a researcher who is no stranger to big discoveries.
A team of geneticists is now examining DNA from the dogs to assess their relationship with other canines and try to piece together how they got into the remote mountains.
“We have two hypotheses,” another UNSW expert Professor Doolittle explained. “Firstly, there are some unsubstantiated reports that Marco Polo brought puppies from Europe to China and he may have left some here on his way through.
“Alternatively, our other hypothesis is that he may have brought them here on his way back from China to Europe. Either result – be it the outward or return journey – would be quite astonishing.”
Biologists are now studying St Bernards in their natural environment. It is hoped that if their behaviours and interactions with their ecosystem can be understood they could one day be successfully re-introduced to households across the world.
Please contact us if you would like to foster a St Bernard puppy, coelacanth or Wollemi Pine as part of the UNSW re-establishment initiative or click here for more information.
UNSW Science media contact: Deborah Smith: 9385 7307, 0478 492 060