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Profile view of a dingo's head
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Cross-country dingoes have different-shaped heads

31 January 2020
New research offers insights about Australia’s iconic wild animal
While older research has suggested that there are three dingo varietals, a new study adds to a growing pile of evidence that there are, in fact, two.

A new University of Sydney study has revealed differences in skull shapes among dingoes from different Australian regions, lending support for the idea of two dingo subgroups, rather than three.

Department of Archaeology PhD candidate Loukas Koungoulos found that dingoes from northwestern Australia, defined as encompassing mostly Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and inland Queensland, all have very similarly shaped skulls – long, thin, and relatively flat.

This contrasts with dingoes from the southeastern region – defined as southern coastal Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria – which tend to have broader skulls with more prominent faces. Compared to their relatives from northwestern parts of Australia, their skulls are more similar to those of domestic dogs and wild New Guinea singing dogs.

Three dingo varieties

Comparison of dingoes from different regions of Australia. From left to right, Desert, Fraser, and Alpine-type dingoes. Sources: Ali Bama, Kongsak Sumano and Heather Ruth Rose/shutterstock.

    

Mr Koungoulos said these differences could be adaptive, due to crossbreeding with domestic dogs, or could indicate different ancestry.

“An older theory suggests three dingo variants – tropical, desert and alpine.

“My research, however, which shows little difference between tropical and desert dingoes, but great difference between them and those from alpine upland areas, supports recent genetic work that suggests there are just two dingo subgroups.”

How to map a dingo skull

Using 3D geometric morphometrics – the analysis of form using coordinates rather than straight lines – Mr Koungoulos mapped adult dingo skulls that he obtained from museum collections across Australia, including at the University of Sydney.

“This method can detect and describe aspects of shape that traditional measurements often cannot,” he explained.

Most of his samples were from animals collected from 1940 to 1999 in pest control and scientific research contexts, and only those with known locations – 302 in total – were used.

Loukas Koungoulas mapping a dingo skull.

Loukas Koungoulas mapping a dingo skull.

   

Where to next?

Published in journal Zoomorphology, the research forms a starting point from which Mr Koungoulos plans to analyse whether the skull differences are indeed caused by ancestral divergence, not crossbreeding with domesticated dogs. This will involve studying collections of genetically verified pure dingo skulls to eliminate the possible influence of dogs.

Background facts:

  • An Australian native, the dingo is thought to descend from a primitive dog variety introduced by Asian seafarers around 5000 years ago
  • From 1788, dingoes were observed living among Indigenous communities and in the wild. There remains debate as to whether dingoes are a separate species to domestic dogs or just a feral breed
  • Dingoes have inhabited every part of mainland Australia, as well as some islands
  • Dingoes from tropical, desert and alpine regions have been observed to differ in their appearance, weight, stature, and some skeletal measurements, yet studies of genetically pure dingoes suggest just two lineages: northwestern and southeastern

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