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The Australian Dingo: Untamed or Feral?


The Australian Dingo: Untamed or Feral?

J William O Ballard et al. Front Zool.


Background: The Australian dingo continues to cause debate amongst Aboriginal people, pastoralists, scientists and the government in Australia. A lingering controversy is whether the dingo has been tamed and has now reverted to its ancestral wild state or whether its ancestors were domesticated and it now resides on the continent as a feral dog. The goal of this article is to place the discussion onto a theoretical framework, highlight what is currently known about dingo origins and taxonomy and then make a series of experimentally testable organismal, cellular and biochemical predictions that we propose can focus future research.

Discussion: We consider a canid that has been unconsciously selected as a tamed animal and the endpoint of methodical or what we now call artificial selection as a domesticated animal. We consider wild animals that were formerly tamed as untamed and those wild animals that were formerly domesticated as feralized. Untamed canids are predicted to be marked by a signature of unconscious selection whereas feral animals are hypothesized to be marked by signatures of both unconscious and artificial selection. First, we review the movement of dingo ancestors into Australia. We then discuss how differences between taming and domestication may influence the organismal traits of skull morphometrics, brain and size, seasonal breeding, and sociability. Finally, we consider cellular and molecular level traits including hypotheses concerning the phylogenetic position of dingoes, metabolic genes that appear to be under positive selection and the potential for micronutrient compensation by the gut microbiome.

Conclusions: Western Australian Government policy is currently being revised to allow the widespread killing of the Australian dingo. These policies are based on an incomplete understanding of the evolutionary history of the canid and assume the dingo is feralized. However, accumulated evidence does not definitively show that the dingo was ever domesticated and additional focused research is required. We suggest that incorporating ancient DNA data into the debate concerning dingo origins will be pivotal to understanding the evolutionary history of the canid. Further, we advocate that future morphological, behavioural and genetic studies should focus on including genetically pure Alpine and Desert dingoes and not dingo-dog hybrids. Finally, we propose that future studies critically examine genes under selection in the dingo and employ the genome from a wild canid for comparison.

Keywords: Artificial selection; Canid; Domestication; Hybridization; Unconscious selection.

Conflict of interest statement

Not applicable.Not applicable.The authors declare that they have no competing interests.Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Process of domestication. We define the endpoint of Darwin’s unconscious selection as a tamed animal and the endpoint of methodical, or what we now call artificial, selection as a tamed and domesticated animal. Unconscious selection proceeds to make an animal human-friendly without any thought to any predetermined purpose. Artificial selection is the process by which humans selectively develop specific phenotypic traits
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Possible evolutionary position of the dingo. Hypothesis 1 is that the dingo is an untamed dog. Hypothesis 2 is that the dingo is a feralized dog. Untamed animals are predicted to be marked by a signature of unconscious selection whereas feral animals are hypothesized to be marked by a signature of both unconscious and artificial selection
Fig. 3
Fig. 3
Double log plot of estimates of adult endocranial volume and body mass. Estimates were calculated from raw cranial landmark data provided in Geiger et al. [81]. Following Geiger et al. [81], breed refers to modern breed as recognized by kennel club standards, and village dogs refers to ‘premodern’ domestic dogs (NG = New Guinea). The latter are defined as populations that are geographically or culturally isolated from modern domestic breeds and that are situated in well-supported, basal positions on molecular phylogenetic trees [81]
Fig. 4
Fig. 4
Simple predictions of the sets of genes that may be expected to be under selection if dingoes are now untamed (Hypothesis 1) or if they are feralized (Hypothesis 2). A. Illustrates the sets of selected genes on each lineage including unconscious selection (a), artificial selection (b), untaming (c) and feralisation (d). B. Illustrates the sets of genes that may be seen when conducting pairwise tests of selection. Note here, we do not know whether the full set of genes involved in taming is required for untaming (a ≈ c). Further, we do not know whether feralisation involves the full set of genes involved in unconscious plus artificial selection (a + b ≈ c)
Fig. 5
Fig. 5
Copy number variation at amylase (AMY2B) locus. Median copy number variation (CNV) at AMY2B obtained and plotted from [163]. Note that not all the breed dogs listed in [163] are included. Rather we have focused on those related to this article and included some well-known breeds

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