Science

Research: Dingoes have coats of many colours

Kylie Cairns with a pure dingo from the Bargo Dingo Sanctuary
Thursday, 18 July, 2013

UNSW research on DNA from almost 4,000 pure dingoes, domestic dogs and hybrid animals has revealed that pure dingoes can come in a range of colours, dispelling the myth they only have ginger coats.

“Dingo coat colour has been controversial, but we routinely find that genetically tested pure dingoes can be ginger, black and tan, white and sable. This backs up the historical evidence,” says Kylie Cairns, a PhD research student in the UNSW School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences.

The findings have important implications for the protection and conservation of Australia’s native dog.

“Farmers may shoot dingoes of different colours because they have been advised that pure dingoes are always ginger. As well, knowing they can come in a variety of colours will help conservation groups with their breeding programs,” Ms Cairns says.

Two pure-bred dingoes joined more than 250 scientists gathered at the University of New South Wales for the annual conference of the Genetics Society of AustralAsia this week to coincide with a scientific session commemorating Associate Professor Alan Wilton, a UNSW expert in dingo genetics who died in 2011.

The dingoes – three-year old, reddish siblings, Tyipa and Cooinda – were bred at the Bargo Dingo Sanctuary, which has re-opened its doors to visitors this month after being shut for years for renovations.

“The sanctuary is a marvellous facility in native bushland,” says UNSW’s Professor Bill Ballard, a patron of the sanctuary. “It has an educational role and it also provides dingoes for scientific research. All of the animals there have been genetically tested by us. A long term goal is to release pure-bred dingoes back into the wild.”

Professor Wilton developed a genetic test using up to 23 genetic markers to provide an estimate of the percentage of dingo ancestry in a dog. It is available commercially from the university.

Professor Ballard and Ms Cairns are conducting research to refine the test, and to study how closely dingoes from different regions of Australia – the tropics, the desert and alpine areas - are related.

The oldest fossil evidence of dingoes in Australia shows they had arrived here by at least 3,500 years ago. Genetic evidence suggests they could be a much older breed, and that they split from a common ancestor with other dogs between about 4,600 and 18,300 years ago.

Understanding the genetics of dingoes is essential, says UNSW conservation biologist, Dr Mike Letnic. “As Australia’s top predator they play a vital role in maintaining healthy balanced ecosystems by keeping the numbers of foxes and feral cats in check.”

“Throughout Australia dingoes are threatened by hybridisation with domestic dogs that have gone wild and by persecution from humans. Understanding where populations of pure dingoes occur is vital if we are to preserve both them and the wildlife they protect from introduced predators,” Dr Letnic says.

Media Contacts:

Kylie Cairns: kylie@kyliecairns.com,

Professor Bill Ballard: 9385 2021, w.ballard@unsw.edu.au

Dr Mike Letnic: 9385 2079, m.letnic@unsw.edu.au

UNSW Science media: Deborah Smith: 9385 7307, 0478 492 060, deborah.smith@unsw.edu.au