‘Tisn’t the Season

Dingoes in captivityCaptive-bred ‘pure’ dingoes, one showing the ability of dingoes to climb. Photo by Marcus Baynes-Rock.

The subject of the domestication of dogs garners a lot of interest. One reason for this is that dog domestication marks a shift in the human evolutionary trajectory after which plants and other animals became subject to domestication. So in light of this interest, it is unsurprising that Australia’s wild canids, dingoes, have attracted some attention. This is because archaeological evidence suggests that they were brought to Australia by people some 4000 years ago, but since their arrival they established an ecological niche as a top predator, displacing thylacines (carnivorous marsupials) on the mainland. This led Richard Francis to say that dingoes have been undergoing ‘reverse domestication’ since arriving in Australia. Of course, the word ‘reverse’ is misplaced in this case – evolution does not go backwards – but it does suggest that dingoes have something to teach us about domestication. This is also supported by experimental evidence which shows that in certain behavioral characteristics, dingoes fall halfway between dogs and wolves, and indeed despite their prehistoric association with humans, dingoes are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a sub-species of wolf.

Another factor that draws interest in dingoes is that they are considered to be facing extinction in the wild. This is not because of habitat loss, poisoning, and trapping (which are all indeed threats to dingoes) but because of hybridization. According to the IUCN Red List, ‘Cross-breeding with domestic dogs represents a significant threat to the long-term persistence of dingoes.’ Some find this position a little odd because extinction is usually aligned with death and disappearance, not sex and reproduction. It reveals how people deploy particular sets of values and particular categorizations toward certain ends. It is also interesting in that it is fostering the trading places of dingoes and domestic dogs, at least in terms of ecologies.

Last month I visited a dingo sanctuary. This place was established specifically due to the threat of extinction hanging over dingoes. It usually houses about 30 dingoes who are bred and either sold to zoos and other sanctuaries or sold as pets. At the sanctuary, they are very concerned about ‘purity’ in terms of genetics, and all dingoes being bred are tested for the 16 genetic markers that differentiate dingoes from European derived dogs. The mission of the sanctuary is also to ensure the bloodlines of dingoes beyond its gates, so prospective dingo owners must sign a legally binding contract stating that they will never breed their dingoes with domestic dogs or hybrids. It is the hope of those at the sanctuary that in the future they will be able to release their captive bred dingoes into the wild, although how hybridization will be prevented is unstated.

The timing of my visit was fortuitous in that a litter of pups had been born there a few weeks previous. Not only did I have super-soft dingo puppies jumping all over me, but I had the chance to reflect on what it means to keep dingoes in captivity while in the wild they are being outnumbered by hybrids. Compared to domestic dogs which can breed at any time of year, dingoes have a narrow breeding season of about three months from March to June. About two months after mating, a litter of pups is born in what is presumably the optimum season for puppy survival. Also unlike domestic dogs, dingoes only produce one litter of pups per year; again this is probably because of the energetic costs of raising pups in the wild. What is interesting about the pups I encountered at the sanctuary is that they were born in November.

Dingo Image 2

There is a famous experiment that has been ongoing for decades called the ‘Farm Fox experiment.’ This is essentially a program where a colony of captive silver foxes in Siberia has been bred for one trait alone: tameness. What emerged out of this study is that by selecting for tameness in foxes, a number of dog-like characteristics have emerged in tandem with tameness. After only a few generations, the foxes began to exhibit things like blotchy coat patterns, curly tails, floppy ears, tail wagging, and vocalizations all in line with what we are familiar with in domestic dogs. What the research indicates is that morphological and behavioral characteristics of domestic dogs are part of a complex suite of characteristics that likely evolved under selection for sociability as dogs became attached to human societies. And there was one other characteristic that emerged: the foxes began breeding outside of narrow confines of their usual breeding season. In a sub-arctic species this is as maladaptive as it gets, and the survival rate of pups born out of season in captivity is also low. But what it tells us is that domestication involves a whole lot of novel selective pressures some of which trump those of wild populations and otherwise maladaptive characteristics such as excessive submissiveness, unusual markings, even breeding out of season, might prove adaptive among human communities.

What this says about our November dingo pups is quite interesting. This is especially so because these pups have excellent housing, food, and access to vets which all give them a better chance at survival than the wild-born hybrids from which they are being kept separate. While they are being bred to be ‘pure’ dingoes, they exhibit a trait that is very un-dingo-like: breeding out of season. While the demands of the Australian bush might quickly eliminate this trait, the conditions of captivity accommodate it. So in this one little respect, we can see that the potential for these ‘pure’ dingoes to become very dog-like. Meanwhile, the dingo/dog hybrids ranging the Australian bush and subject to the selective pressures that produced dingoes, are by nature of their distancing from human communities, becoming more dingo-like. In short, we may be witnessing the domestication of one species – dingoes – and the un-domestication of the other.

For further reading:

  • Dugatkin, L. A. and Trut, L. 2017, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Coppinger, R. And Coppinger, L. 2016, What is a Dog? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Corbett, L.K. 2008. Canis lupus ssp. dingo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T41585A10484199. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T41585A10484199.en. Downloaded on 22 December 2017.