In 2017, Dr. Bill Ballard at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia won a competition to sequence the “world’s most interesting” genome. He chose the Australian dingo.
The history of Australian dingoes
Scientists and archaeologists believe that dingoes arrived in Australia at least 5,000 years ago. One hypothesis says that the Australian dingo may have originated in Asia before migrating to Australia.
There are two types of dingoes in Australia, desert and alpine. According to the Australian Dingo Foundation, “Alpine dingoes are found in high elevation areas of the Australian Alps along eastern Australia. They are mostly ginger in color, whilst in forested areas the fur can be a darker tan to black. During late autumn they grow a second thicker coat for warmth, which usually sheds by mid to late spring. Desert dingoes are reddish, golden yellow, or sand colored with a compact body size and a fine coat. They are found broadly across Central Australia.”
Dingoes are ancient, wild canids. Australia’s climate and environment have helped to shape the dingo population for thousands of years. As an apex predator, the dingo plays an important role in the ecosystem.
The Australian dingo and dogs
Are dingoes another breed of domestic dog? That’s the question Dr. Ballard and his team set out to answer. They compared Sandy the dingo’s DNA to several domestic dog breeds: the German Shepherd Dog, Boxer, Basenji, Great Dane, and Labrador Retriever. They also compared Sandy’s DNA to the Greenland Wolf.
Their findings show that the Australian dingo is genetically distinct from domestic dogs. This suggests that the dingo likely descended from wild dogs.
How different are Australian dingoes and breed dogs? According to Dr. Ballard, very different. The dingo has up to 24 million unique “letters” in their DNA compared to domestic dog breeds. The amount of large genetic differences (called structural variants) between dingoes and dogs is significant. There are more large chromosomal differences between dingoes and dogs than there are in the average human genome.
Why are dingoes and dogs so different?
Part of the reason why Australian dingo DNA is so unique is because they were geographically isolated from wolves and from dogs for thousands of years.
One clue about the differences between dingoes and dogs comes from their diet. Dogs have multiple copies of the amylase gene AMY2B, which helps them digest starch. Eating starch goes hand-in-hand with domestication—humans throughout history fed their dogs the same food we ate. When people started eating starch, so did dogs.
In contrast, dingoes, like wolves, only have one copy of the AMY2B gene. Dingoes have a very different diet compared to dogs. They eat native Australian species, like marsupials and reptiles. It makes sense, then, that they don’t have the AMY2B variant, because they don’t need to digest starch the way dogs do.
The scientists also found that Australian dingoes and domestic dogs have different gut microbiomes.
“This study is the first high-quality genome ever generated for a dingo, joining the list of high-quality genomes that have been generated for the Boxer, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Great Dane, and Basenji. The dingo is uniquely positioned as a basal group in this group of dogs, and also has striking differences in methylation and microbiome patterns. As more high-quality genomes are generated, particularly from indigenous dogs from Central and Southeast Asia, undoubtedly more will be learned about the origins and history of our canine companions.”
—Dr. Adam Boyko, Chief Science Officer at Embark
In addition to giving us insights about how the dingo evolved, knowing the differences between dingoes and dogs can have important implications for conservation and ecological studies. The evolutionary implications of this work are also helpful for scientists at Embark and the work they are doing to better understand dog ancestry.
Does Embark test for Australian dingo?
Even though they are genetically distinct, Australian dingoes can still breed with domestic dogs. That’s why some of today’s domestic dogs might have dingo ancestry.
Embark does test for Australian dingo. We test for 350+ breeds, including dingoes, coyotes, wolves, and village dogs (in fact, we’re the only dog DNA testing company that can do that). All Embark dog DNA tests include genetic testing for breed ancestry.
What’s next for dingo research
Next, the researchers plan to investigate whether the dingo was ever domesticated before arriving in Australia. It’s unlikely that dingoes were domesticated in Australia, they say, but it’s possible they were domesticated before they arrived. The authors also call for more studies to understand the role of the dingo in the natural ecosystem.