Ancient skeletons prove little interbreeding in modern dingoes | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Ancient skeletons prove little interbreeding in modern dingoes

DNA sourced from dingo bones predating the arrival of Europeans in Australia shows that modern dingoes retain much of their ancient genetic makeup, with little interbreeding with domestic dogs.  

University of the Sunshine Coast dingo researcher Dr Gabriel Conroy was part of a team of national and international scientists who traced the lineage of Australia’s top predator back thousands of years using ancient dingo remains. 

In a new study published today, they reveal modern dingoes came from a common ancestor between 3,000 to 8,000 years ago, and formed two separate East and West populations in different regions of Australia.  

The researchers say the insights are crucial for the conservation and management of dingo populations, confirming that modern dingoes, including those on K’gari, remain genetically distinct and preserve their ancient heritage.

Genetic data from modern dingoes on K'gari were used in the study. (Image: Clare McKay)

“There have been a lot of unsupported assertions that there is a high magnitude of interbreeding between dingoes and domestic dogs present in modern dingoes, leading to assumptions that this would make it problematic to trace the origins and early history of dingoes in Australia,” Dr Conroy said.

“That’s why it was important to use ancient genomes for this study, which are obviously free of hybridisation from modern dog breeds and represent a defensibly ‘true’ genetic picture of dingoes.

“The findings clearly showed that modern dingo genomes do not reflect interbreeding with dogs."

The findings demonstrate that modern dingoes inherited their population structure and most of their ancestry from ancient dingo populations, and that this broad genetic structure across Australia appears to have been in place for at least 2,000 years. 

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America and featured in The Conversation. The lead author was Dr Yassine Souilmia from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide.  

The researchers sequenced genetic data from 42 dingo specimens from coastal western Australia, the Nullarbor Plain, and coastal eastern Australia, spanning an east-west distance of over 3,000 km.  Most predated the arrival of Europeans in Australia, ranging in age from 400 to 2,746 years. 

“We used our ancient dingo genomes as a baseline to re-estimate the amount of dingo lineage in a selection of modern animals that had previously been identified as pure, including several dingoes from K’gari,” Dr Conroy said. 

“We found no evidence for recent domestic dog ancestry in the majority of modern dingo individuals examined.” 

With dingoes forming an important regulator of biodiversity in Australia, yet remaining controversial and persecuted, the researchers say evidence-based management and conservation depends on clearer understanding of their genetic heritage and population history.  

“Significantly, the research shows that existing DNA tests based on microsatellite markers are inaccurate and sometimes tend to overestimate dog ancestry. Using ancient DNA will allow us to develop more accurate tools for measuring dingoes’ genetic ancestry,” Dr Conroy said. 

Fraser Island dingo close-up

Wongari (dingo) on K'gari. Image: Clare McKay

“The unfortunate ongoing culling of dingoes across much of the nation highlights the importance of populations protected in national parks, such as the iconic K’gari ‘Wongari’ population, which alongside their ecological role, have cultural significance to the region’s Traditional Owners, the Butchulla People.”

Author affiliations include:  The University of the Sunshine Coast, The University of Adelaide, Queensland University of Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, Griffith University, Universidad de Zaragoza, Grützner Laboratory of Comparative Genomics, Australian National University, Telethon Kids Institute, UNSW Sydney, University of Melbourne, Australian Museum, of Auckland; Queensland Department of Education, University of Western Australia, Charles Sturt University and Whenua—Landcare Research.  

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