No longer brother to the dingo

The dingo: Better manners than the wolf, but not in my class.

There’s been quite a fuss this week about the new research showing where the dingo sits in my evolutionary development.

The Boss says it was published in Science Advances after 25 researchers from four countries put their heads together to try to figure out whether the dingo was partly domesticated before it came to Australia 5000 to 8000 years ago … or not. Because they are different from wolves.

That sounds like a lot of effort and, if they’d asked me in the first place, I could have told them that the dingo has worse manners than me but better than the wolf.

Writing in The Conversation, professors Matt Field and William Ballard said their work had potential implications for the health of all modern breed dogs, of which I am most certainly one and therefore interested.

They said that by studying dingos compared to dogs they could gain insight into how humans had influenced dogs’ physical and behavioural traits, as well as observe changes in their genome (which is all my DNA collected together).

You’d reckon asking a dog would be quicker, wouldn’t you? Take the wily dingo, for a second: I could have told them that humans have influenced dingos by leaving food scraps around and feeding them in busy tourist places such as Uluru and Fraser Island, so the dingos lose their fear and end up stealing wallets and babies.

And I could have also told them there’s not really much between us, particularly when I’m in a loose mood. We all have fur to keep us warm, sharp teeth to tear raw meat (and aliens) apart and a formidable — but occasionally impolite — sense of smell.

And The Boss would agree that, when dogs go wild in the bush — some cross-breeding with dingos — and have to hunt for their food, they start behaving more like dingos than house pets. They howl instead of bark. You hear them howling to each other across valleys on the big moon.

But he said the researchers were looking for more precision and I shouldn’t be too hard on them. It hasn’t been long since scientists mapped the entire human genome, after all — that vast collection of DNA and genes and chromosomes that determines hereditary traits in humans.

He says they hope to use this information to improve dog health in the same way as gene technology is helping to overcome human health problems, like the way the mRNA vaccines were developed to provoke human cells to produce an immune response to the COVID-19 virus.

On the subject of breeding, The Boss reckons my perverse and wayward disposition was a direct result of duck hunters and fishermen on Chesapeake Bay cross-breeding dogs to get the most robust cold-water swimmers they could, allied with a good retrieving instinct.

“They clearly failed by producing an opinionated, eccentric and single-minded creature like you, General, with over-sized feet and two layers of oily fur. But it wasn’t for the want of trying,” he muttered.

The Boss reckons that, while cross-breeding over the past 200 years has produced the modern purebreds of today, it has resulted in breed-specific diseases and distortions, like hip dysplasia in Labradors and German shepherds, breathing problems in pugs and French bulldogs — and blindness in some terrier breeds.

He said the researchers argued their knowledge about dingos’ evolutionary history would give them a disease-free baseline, which could lead to better targeted treatment for breed dogs.

That idea had him peering at me in a way that made me nervous. I’m quite happy with not being targeted as an experiment, thanks very much. Woof!