Air-dropping poisoned meat to kill bush predators hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s unlikely to help now



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Justine M. Philip, Museums Victoria

After the summer’s devastating bushfires, the New South Wales government announced a plan to airdrop one million poisoned baits in the state’s most vulnerable regions over the next year. The plan is aimed at protecting surviving native animals from foxes, feral cats and wild dogs.

This isn’t the first time aerial baiting has been used in NSW recently. As the fire season got underway in September last year, the government’s biannual aerial baiting program scattered baits over nearly 8 million hectares in the Western Division alone – dispensing 43,442 aerial baits and 115,162 ground-laid baits over the drought-stricken region.

Biosecurity officers drying meat baits for the Autumn baiting program in Broken Hill last year.
NSW Government, Local Land Services, Western Region

In a study published this week, I explore Australia’s history as pioneers of this technology. The review raises serious concerns about the ethics and poor results of baiting programs, and the high uptake of baits by non-target species such as marsupials.

D-day for dingoes

Aerial baiting has been Australia’s foremost weapon against pest species for the past 74 years. The initial target was the dingo, to protect unguarded livestock from being killed.




Read more:
How Australia made poisoning animals normal


It started on Remembrance Day in 1946. Around 367,000 dry meat baits were airdropped across Queensland, each containing enough strychnine to kill an adult dingo. The campaign was considered a victory, despite only recovering one dingo carcass during the initial operation. Livestock predation apparently decreased; tracks in the sand vanished.

The following year, 1.5 million baits were distributed. Then in 1948 the quantity increased to 2.5 million baits across remote regions of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Livestock predation decreased after airdropping baits, but at what cost?
CSIRO Science Image, CC BY

Thousands of baits to kill one dingo

The strychnine tablets took up to 12 tortuous hours for the poison to deliver its lethal kill. The baits used in research trials were still toxic after 14 weeks.

There was huge public criticism of the project at the time – much of it from graziers. They claimed ants and valuable pest-eating birds – magpies, small hawks, butcher birds, crows, ibis and curlew – were eating the baits.

In response, the Queensland government set up the first monitored trials. The 1954 report from the Chief Vermin Control Officer recorded:

In the dry season campaigns, the baits are dropped on water-holes, soaks, junctions of dried water courses, gorges in hills and all places where dogs must travel or gather in their search for water and game and in their movements with pups from the breeding areas.

The data recorded an average 14,941 baits dispensed for every dingo carcass recovered. Anecdotal evidence suggests the program was considered a success.

CSIRO research worker with young dingo, 1970.
National Archives of Australia

Then in 1968 – 21 years after aerial campaigns began – a four-year CSIRO study tested the effectiveness of aerial baiting. It found the 1954 report was far from conclusive – the dingoes may just have moved elsewhere. And it concluded: “clearly aerial baiting was not effective”.

But there was an important caveat:

It is important to emphasise that, though this aerial baiting campaign was a failure, such a conclusion does not necessarily apply to any other campaign.

On the strength of that, aerial baiting programs continued.

Not much has changed

Despite millions of baits applied annually to the environment since the 1940s, Australia’s biodiversity has plummeted.

What’s more, developments in the technology haven’t come far. Raw meat baits eventually replaced dry baits in some areas. Strychnine was superseded by 1080, a less harmful poison to non-target native species, and less persistent in the environment.

Trials in the 1980s brought the bait-to-kill rate down to 750 to 1 (baits per dingo carcass recovered). This was considered a cost-effective and successful outcome.

Soon after, aerial baiting found a new market, becoming the frontline defence against Australia’s plummeting biodiversity from invasive predators.

Baits are not benign to marsupials

In 2008, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority imposed a limit of ten baits per kilometre to reduce risk to non-target species.

Pest control agencies need four times that amount of poison to achieve a successful kill rate. Yet planes have been dispensing baits at this lower and ineffective rate since 2008.

Why? It seems a balance between wildlife safety and effective canine or predator eradication isn’t possible with this technology.




Read more:
Dingoes found in New South Wales, but we’re killing them as ‘wild dogs’


In fact, it has been impossible to accurately trace the fate of baits thrown from aeroplanes into remote terrain. Even ground baiting trials have proved difficult to monitor. A 2018 trial found non-target species consumed more than 71% of ground-laid meat baits, including ravens, crows, goannas, monitor lizards, marsupials and ants.

Four young dingoes died during this trial, representing only a 1.25% uptake by target. Despite monitoring with cameras and sand traps, 599 baits out of 961 in the trial disappeared without a trace.

These baits are not benign. Repeat doses can kill marsupials; non-lethal doses can kill pouch young. Secondary poisoning can also be lethal. Applying this outdated technology to vulnerable bushfire regions is from a historical viewpoint, potentially hazardous.

Surely there’s another way

There are new technologies available to help protect and repair Australia’s fragile and broken ecosystems. Remote surveillance, drones, AI, heat sensing equipment, and more could locate populations and dispatch dangerous animals.




Read more:
Guardian dogs, fencing, and ‘fladry’ protect livestock from carnivores


If aerial baiting continues, aerial surveillance could at least follow the fate of the one million baits and tell us what and who is eating them – who lives and who dies in the stripped-bare landscape.

One thing is for certain: halting the program would prevent hundreds of thousands of these poisoned meat baits ending up in the stomachs of our treasured native animals.The Conversation

Justine M. Philip, Doctor of Philosophy, Ecosystem Management, Museums Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dingoes found in New South Wales, but we’re killing them as ‘wild dogs’



One in four of nearly 800 animals genetically tested were pure dingo.
Michelle J Photography

Kylie M Cairns, UNSW; Brad Nesbitt, University of New England; Mathew Crowther, University of Sydney; Mike Letnic, UNSW, and Shawn Laffan, UNSW

There is a widespread belief dingoes are as good as extinct in New South Wales and nearly all dog-like animals in the wild are simply wild dogs. This belief is bolstered by legislation and policies in NSW, which have removed the word dingo and refer only to “wild dogs”.

But our research, recently published in the journal Conservation Genetics, challenges this assumption. We performed DNA ancestry testing, much like the ancestry tests available to people, on 783 wild canines killed as part of pest control measures in NSW.




Read more:
The dingo is a true-blue, native Australian species


Roughly one in four of the animals we tested were pure dingoes, and most were genetically more than three-quarters dingo. Only 5 of the 783 animals we tested turned out to be feral domestic dogs with no dingo ancestry.

If it looks like a dingo, acts like a dingo and shares dingo genes… there’s a pretty good chance it’s a dingo.
Michelle J Photography, Author provided

Dingo hotspots

Studies carried out by the CSIRO in the 1980s and ‘90s examined the skulls of wild canines in southeastern Australia, and concluded they were largely hybrids of dingoes and dogs.

In NSW all wild dogs are classified as pest animals. Under the NSW Biosecurity Act 2015 all landholders have a duty to control wild dogs to minimise the risk of negative impacts on neighbouring land.

This policy requires all public and private landholders in NSW to display signs warning when poison baits have been laid to kill wild dogs.

But our DNA testing found three hotspots of high dingo ancestry within northeastern NSW: Washpool National Park; the coast north of Port Macquarie; and the Myall lakes region.

There were more pure dingoes in these areas. Despite these positive findings, dingo-dog hybridisation is still very prevalent in NSW. Three-quarters of wild animals carry some domestic dog ancestry.




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Dingoes and humans were once friends. Separating them could be why they attack


This is not entirely surprising. Domestic pet and working dogs have lived alongside dingoes for centuries. Widespread killing of dingoes also increases the risk of hybridisation because it breaks family groups apart, giving domestic dogs the opportunity to mate with dingoes. Small populations also have a higher risk of hybridisation.

1080 poison baits are affecting dingoes as well as feral dogs.
Mike Letnic

Hybridisation is generally considered detrimental to conservation because it alters the genome. In the case of dingoes, hybridisation is a problem because hybrids may be different to dingoes and “true” dingoes will eventually disappear.

While our results show dingoes still exist and their genes are predominate, their conservation will be greatly helped if we can prevent further interbreeding with domestic dogs.

Time to resurrect the dingo

Our study has important implications for both how we describe dingoes, and the future conservation of dingoes in NSW. Most of the animals labelled as wild dogs in NSW had predominantly dingo DNA, and fewer than 1% were actually feral dogs.

The term wild dog obfuscates the identity of wild animals whose genes are mostly dingo but sometimes carry dog genes. For all intents and purposes, these animals have dingo DNA, look like dingoes and behave like dingoes, and consequently should be labelled as dingoes rather than escaped pets gone wild.




Read more:
Dingoes do bark: why most dingo facts you think you know are wrong


Hotspots with high dingo ancestry have significant conservation value and urgently need new management plans to ensure these pure dingo populations are protected from hybridisation. These populations could be protected by restricting the killing of dingoes in these areas and restricting access to domestic dogs on public land such as state forests.

Animals long thought to be wild dogs are actually predominantly dingoes.
Michelle J Photography, Author provided

Further ancestry testing should be conducted in more areas to determine whether there are other pockets of high dingo purity in NSW.

Undeniably, dingoes can negatively impact livestock producers, especially sheep farmers. Non-lethal strategies such as electric or exclusion fencing, and livestock guarding animals such as dogs, llamas and donkeys, may balance the need to conserve dingoes and protect vulnerable livestock.




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Guardian dogs, fencing, and ‘fladry’ protect livestock from carnivores


In some circumstances, dingoes can benefit farmers because they reduce numbers of native and feral herbivores like kangaroos, feral goats, rabbits and pigs, boosting pasture growth for livestock.

If lethal control is justified, then targeted strategies such as shooting and trapping may be more suitable in high dingo conservation areas rather than landscape-wide poison aerial baiting.

It is time to resurrect the dingo. The term dingo needs to come back into official language, and we need practical strategies for limiting dingo-dog hybridisation and protecting dingo hotspots.




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Dog owners could take the lead on dingo conservation with a ‘Fido fund’


The Conversation


Kylie M Cairns, Research fellow, UNSW; Brad Nesbitt, Adjunct Research Fellow, University of New England; Mathew Crowther, Associate professor, University of Sydney; Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW, and Shawn Laffan, Associate professor, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dog owners could take the lead on dingo conservation with a ‘Fido fund’



Dingo puppers. A small levy on dog costs could help create more ethical management of dingoes.
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Neil R Jordan, UNSW and Rob Appleby, Griffith University

Humans and dogs go way back. From wolf totems to the big bad wolf of fact and fairy tale, through sheepdogs, lap dogs, and labradoodles, our relationships with these animals are complex, emotionally charged and sometimes contradictory.

The split between humanity’s lavishing of affection on domestic dogs and our contrasting animosity towards their wild relatives is well-documented. But what of domestic dogs and dingoes?

Our research, published today, found similarly contrasting relationships in Australia, where the dingo, Australia’s native dog, is frequently killed for management. We suggest that an inexpensive “dingo conservation levy” on domestic dog costs could fund more ethical management of dingoes. In this way our affection for domestic dogs could be harnessed to improve conservation outcomes for their wild relatives.

Dingoes have an ecotourism appeal in places like K’gari (Fraser Island)
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Canine economics

Australians collectively spend over A$10 billion each year on their domestic dogs – housing, feeding, and sometimes even giving them the status of honorary family members. Meanwhile, government and landowners jointly spend at least A$30 million on large-scale exclusion fencing and lethal control of dingoes.

Industry funded research suggests that dingoes killing livestock, especially sheep, and efforts to control dingoes, cost at least A$145 million annually. What’s more, such losses also come with psychological stress, which you can’t always put a price on.

Other research suggests dingoes, as top predators, provide considerable economic benefits. For example, dingoes prey upon kangaroos and other herbivores that may compete with livestock for food and water. In fact, some estimates suggest dingoes improve gross margins by $0.83 per hectare in this context.

They also help biodiversity by suppressing feral cats and foxes, and dingoes have considerable ecotourism appeal in locations like K’gari (Fraser Island) and Kakadu National Park.

Managing dingoes

Australia’s current approach to dingo management highlights the paradox of an animal viewed both as a valuable native predator that should be conserved, and as a pest to be destroyed. And this makes it a nightmare to manage.

The dingo fence stretches for thousands of kilometres in the Australian outback to try to keep dingoes away from sheep and livestock.
Shutterstock

Current dingo management relies heavily on exclusion fencing and lethal control, and around 200kg of 1080 powder (poison) is administered to baits and peppered across the continent annually.

Countless bullets are also fired, and traps set, as the lion’s share of management budgets is allocated to business as usual. To break this deadly cycle, there is a clear need to provide farmers and governments with good evidence that different approaches could work. This can only be done through substantial parallel investment in robust, independent experimental tests of alternative approaches.

Despite broad support in society for non-lethal management, accessing sufficient funds to support such a transition remains challenging.

A modest dingo conservation levy could fund this. With a levy on the A$10 billion domestic dog industry, we could harness humanity’s affinity for domestic dogs to improve conservation and welfare outcomes for their wild counterparts.

It wouldn’t need to be prohibitively expensive either.

A levy on the sale of pet dogs, dog food, or both, of only about 0.3% of the amount that pet owners spend on this annually – or A$7.36 per dog – would generate A$30 million each year.

That is similar to the lowest estimates of current national spending on dingo control, which means we would potentially see the current spending doubled.

Why should dog owners pick up the tab?

Applying a levy to all dog owners may seem unfair, and perhaps it is. But as Australia’s “dingo problem” is, arguably, at least in part caused by domestic dogs gone feral, such a levy would seem no more unfair on conscientious dog owners than third-party insurance is on careful drivers.

Given that pet owners tend to view wild animals more positively and show more concern for their welfare, such a levy might actually be well received by dog-owners anyway.

An alternative approach might be to seek the voluntary involvement of pet-food manufacturers in such a scheme, giving consumers choice over whether to support it.

Dog-lovers generally also love wild animals, and may be happy to pick up the costs for ethical dingo conservation.
Shutterstock

A dingo conservation levy – perhaps supplemented by a voluntary fund for donors without dogs – might also be more acceptable and attractive if it were clear the funds would be specifically channelled towards research and uptake of non-lethal tools.

Generally, we are broadly in favour of any techniques designed to reduce the animosity towards dingoes, reduce the costs and negative impacts of living alongside them, and boost the positive effects dingoes have on ecosystems.

As some have already argued, they are all dogs at the end of the day. Perhaps then it is time that we treated them as such.


We would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Mike Letnic, Henry Brink, Brad Purcell and Hugh Webster to this article.The Conversation

Neil R Jordan, Lecturer, UNSW and Rob Appleby, PhD student at the Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dingoes and humans were once friends. Separating them could be why they attack



File 20190429 194630 g4xwba.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dingoes on K’Gari are the most genetically ‘pure’ in Australia.

Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology

Two small children were hospitalised in recent weeks after being attacked by dingoes on K’gari (Fraser Island).

The latest attack involved a 14-month-old boy who was dragged from his family campervan by dingoes, an incident that could have ended with much more serious consequences than the injuries he sustained.

Fraser Island, famous for its wild dingo population, was renamed K’Gari in 2017. And the number of tourists involved in negative interactions with dingoes appears to be increasing.




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Why do dingoes attack people, and how can we prevent it?


The dingo, a wild dog of the Canis genus, were likely brought to Australia by Asian seafarers around 4,000 years ago.

Dingoes can be terrifying – but not when they’re puppies.
Shutterstock

While dingoes exist in many parts of Australia today, those on K’gari are thought to be “special” because of their genetic purity. This means they have not interbred with wild and domestic dogs to the same extent mainland dingoes have, and so are considered the purest bred dingoes in Australia.

They are legally protected because of this special status, and because they live in a national park and World Heritage Area. Unfortunately, it is precisely this protection and separation from humans that has driven much of the increase in interaction and aggression towards people.




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Like cats and dogs: dingoes can keep feral cats in check


This ongoing human-dingo conflict on K’Gari shows how our laws and management practices can actually increase negative encounters with wildlife when they don’t consider the history, ecology and social circumstances of the conflict area.

Law and policy ‘naturalised’ dingoes

The island’s laws and policies, such as the international World Heritage Convention and the more local Fraser Island Dingo Conservation and Risk Management Strategy, are focused on conserving a particular human idea of “natural wilderness”.

In practice, this means the management policy focuses on “naturalising” the dingo by effectively separating them from people and the sources of food they bring.

But dingoes, although wild animals, have never effectively been naturalised on K’Gari, so our attempts to maintain their “natural” and “wild” status is not entirely accurate.

K’Gari (Fraser Island) is the largest sand island in the world.
Shutterstock

Dingoes have a long history of being close with Aboriginal people. This human-dingo relationship continued as the island was used for mining and logging, as employees also lived with dingoes. They were fed by people, scavenged scraps from rubbish tips, and fed on leftover fish offal.

It is only in the last few decades we have sought to rewild dingoes by removing all forms of human-sourced food, separating them from human settlement.




Read more:
Living blanket, water diviner, wild pet: a cultural history of the dingo


Separating the animals from humans won’t work, however, when more than 400,000 tourists visit K’Gari every year, expecting to see a dingo.

International law and local management prioritise tourism, and a tourism-based economy is certainly preferable to the logging and sand-mining economies that existed before the national park was given World Heritage status in 1992.

Be dingo safe.
Shutterstock

But are such large visitor numbers in a relatively small space sustainable?

This question has been asked often, including by the Queensland government in their Great Sandy Region Management Plan.

Yet, there has been no serious consideration given to reducing tourist numbers or increasing fees, despite research suggesting visitors are willing to sacrifice some access for improved environmental outcomes and less crowding.

Such proposals have been specifically rejected by decision-makers within the Dingo Management Plan.




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Dingoes do bark: why most dingo facts you think you know are wrong


So where does that leave us?

We essentially have three options:

  1. if we wish to stick with the policy of dingo naturalisation and human separation, we must change our attitudes and values towards dingoes so people maintain an appropriate distance and do not inadvertently feed them. This can happen with education, fines and collaboration. While this is essentially what policies have attempted so far, there has been little effect on overall incident numbers

  2. we can take the naturalisation policy to its expected endpoint and completely separate tourists and dingoes. This may mean more fencing, greater fines and fewer annual visitors so rangers can educate and manage all visitors effectively

  3. we can drastically reevaluate how we value wildlife and how we place ourselves within the natural world. This would see an enormous overhaul of the regulatory framework, and would also require a deeper understanding of all the causes of conflict, other than just the immediate issue of tourism, habituation and feeding.

In practice, an effective dingo management policy would probably require a combination of all three options to maintain the pristine state of K’Gari, conserve the dingo population and improve human safety.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Like cats and dogs: dingoes can keep feral cats in check



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Feral cats are linked to the extinction of at least 20 Australian mammals.
Shutterstock

Mike Letnic, UNSW and Ben Feit

The role of dingoes in the Australian landscape is highly debated between ecologists, conservationists and graziers. They kill livestock, but also hunt introduced animals and keep kangaroo populations in check.

Now new research sheds more light on the benefits dingoes bring to the outback. For the first time, our research clearly shows that dingoes suppress feral cat numbers.

Our research, published recently in Ecosystems, used the world’s largest fence to compare essentially identical environments with and without dingoes. Over the course of the six-year study, dingoes drove down cat numbers – and kept them down.




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Feral cats are out of control

Feral cats are a serious conservation threat. They have been linked to the extinction of at least 20 mammal species in Australia and threaten the ongoing survival of more than 100 native species.

For our study, we asked whether “top-down” pressure from dingoes (through direct killing and competition for food) had a greater influence on controlling cat numbers than “bottom-up” effects (the availability of shared food sources preyed on by cats).

Dingoes drive down the population of introduced animals.
Kim/flickr, CC BY-SA

We conducted our study by comparing the numbers of dingoes, cats and their major prey species on either side of the dingo fence in the Strzelecki Desert. The fence runs along the borders of New South Wales and South Australia and was originally built to exclude dingoes from sheep grazing lands in NSW.

The state border follows the longitude line 141 east, so the fence does not demarcate any natural boundary. It simply cuts a straight line through sand dunes with similar landforms and vegetation on either side. Thus the dingo fence provides a unique opportunity to study apex predators’ effects on ecosystems: dingoes are common on the SA side, “outside” the fence, whereas on the NSW “inside” of the fence, dingoes are rare due to intensive persecution by humans.




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Let’s move the world’s longest fence to settle the dingo debate


We collected data from sites on either side of the fence in the Strzelecki Desert, at roughly four-month intervals between 2011 and 2017. Dingo and cat scat was collected at each site, to analyse and compare diets, and spotlight searches were used to record numbers of dingoes, feral cats, as well as two of their common shared food sources: rabbits and hopping mice.

Spotlight surveys revealed dingoes to be virtually absent from study areas inside the fence, with only four dingoes recorded during the study. Where dingoes were rare inside the fence, cat numbers closely followed fluctuations of their prey species consistently over the six-year span of our study. As prey numbers increased, cat numbers also increased, and similarly as prey numbers declined, cat numbers also declined.

A feral cat in outback Australia.
Shutterstock

Outside the fence, where dingoes were common, it was quite a different story. There, cat numbers were consistently lower, with numbers of both cats and dingoes following fluctuations in prey numbers across the first two years of the study. However, from 2013 onward, dingo numbers remained high and matched trends in their prey numbers for the remainder of the study.

During this time, cat numbers remained low, and by the end of 2015, cats had virtually disappeared from our study sites outside the fence and were not recorded during spotlight surveys between November 2015 and the end of our study in July 2017.

The most likely explanation for this drastic reduction in cat populations is through interference competition – either by dingoes killing some cats or by scaring others away from habitats in which they would usually hunt. Indeed, we occasionally found cat remains in dingo scats, which suggests dingoes prey on cats.

Although our scat analyses indicated that dingoes and cats eat similar foods, there was no evidence that competition for food was a major factor in how dingoes reduce cat populations. This is because prey were plentiful outside the fence, where dingoes were common and cats were rare.




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Why do some graziers want to retain, not kill, dingoes?


This research show how dingoes can help conservation efforts by suppressing feral cat populations. It adds to previous work showing dingoes are important in maintaining healthy ecosystems, as they reduce and eradicate feral herbivores like pigs and goats, and stop kangaroos from overpopulating districts.


This article was updated on April 5 to credit Ben Feit as a co-author.The Conversation

Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW and Ben Feit, Post-doctoral researcher

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The dingo is a true-blue, native Australian species


Bradley Smith, CQUniversity Australia; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Justin W. Adams, Monash University; Kylie M Cairns, UNSW, and Mathew Crowther, University of Sydney

Of all Australia’s wildlife, one stands out as having an identity crisis: the dingo. But our recent article in the journal Zootaxa argues that dingoes should be regarded as a bona fide species on multiple fronts.

This isn’t just an issue of semantics. How someone refers to dingoes may reflect their values and interests, as much as the science.

How scientists refer to dingoes in print reflects their background and place of employment, and the Western Australian government recently made a controversial attempt to classify the dingo as “non-native fauna”.




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Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes


How we define species – called taxonomy – affects our attitudes, and long-term goals for their conservation.

What is a dog?

Over many years, dingoes have been called many scientific names: Canis lupus dingo (a subspecies of the wolf), Canis familiaris (a domestic dog), and Canis dingo (its own species within the genus Canis). But these names have been applied inconsistently in both academic literature and government policy.

This inconsistency partially reflects the global arguments regarding the naming of canids. For those who adhere to the traditional “biological” species concept (in which a “species” is a group of organisms that can interbreed), one might consider the dingo (and all other canids that can interbreed, like wolves, coyotes, and black-backed jackals) to be part of a single, highly variable and widely distributed species.

Members of the Canis genus: wolf (Canis lupus), coyote (Canis latrans), Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), dingo (Canis dingo), and a representative of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris).

But the “biological” species concept used to name species came about long before modern genetic tools, or even before many hybrid species were identified by their DNA (such as the “red wolf,” an ancient hybrid of grey wolves and coyotes found in the southeastern United States).

Few people would really argue that a chihuahua, a wolf, and a coyote are the same species. In reality there are many more comprehensive and logical ways to classify a species. In our latest paper we argue that a holistic approach to defining species is essential in the case of the dingo and other canids.

Our work shows conclusively that dingoes are distinct from wild canids and domestic dogs based on many different criteria.

Truly wild

The first criterion is that dingoes are wild animals, and live completely independent from humans. This is fundamentally different to domestic, feral, or wild dogs, which must live near human settlements and rely on humans for food and water in some way to survive.

Yes, the dingo might have arrived in Australia with humans, and we know that Aboriginal Australians have had a close relationship with dingoes following the latter’s arrival. But neither of these observations excludes dingoes from being wild.




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Dingoes do bark: why most dingo facts you think you know are wrong


For example, a relationship with humans does not constitute the rigorous definitions of domestication. Consider the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which was also introduced to Australia by people and are now free-ranging: they are also not considered to be domesticated. Neither are wild animals such as birds that we feed in our backyards domesticated simply because they are sometimes fed by us.

Ecological role

In fact, dingoes have been living wild and independently of humans for a very long time — they have a distinct and unique evolutionary past that diverged some 5 to 10 thousand years ago from other canids. This is more than enough time for the dingo to have evolved into a naturalised predator now integral to maintaining the health of many Australian ecosystems.




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Dingo dinners: what’s on the menu for Australia’s top predator?


Dogs do not have the brain power or body adaptations to survive in the wild, and they cannot play the same ecological role as dingoes. From this ecological perspective alone, the two species are not interchangeable. Dingoes are Australia’s only large (between 15-20 kg), land-based predator, and as such play a vital role in Australia’s environment.

Shape and size

Viewed alone, the overall shape of the body and skull does not easily distinguish wild canids from dogs, mainly because of the sheer diversity among different breeds of domestic dogs.

But there are some important body differences between free-ranging dogs and dingoes, mainly in the skull region (as shown here and here).

Cranial 3-D reconstructions of a dingo (bottom) and a free-ranging dog (top), highlighting the differences in cranial morphology mentioned in the text.

Behaviour

Dingoes (and other truly wild canids) have some fundamentally unique behaviours that set them apart from dogs (although like shape, there are often exceptions among the artificial dog breeds). For example, dingoes have significantly different reproductive biology and care-giving strategies.

There are also differences in brain function, such as in the way the two species solve problems, and dingoes and dogs communicate differently with humans.




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Why do dingoes attack people, and how can we prevent it?


Genetics

While dingoes and dogs obviously share an ancestral relationship, there is a lot of genetic data to support the distinction between dingoes and dogs.

While dingoes share ancestry with ancient Asian dogs from 10,000 years ago, the dingo has been geographically isolated from all other canids for many thousands of years, and genetic mixing has only been occurring recently, most probably driven by human intervention.

Since the 1990s, genetic markers have been in widespread use by land managers, conservation groups, and researchers to differentiate dingoes from domestic dogs.

A summary of the evolutionary relationships among wolves, dingoes and modern domestic dogs. Dingoes and other ancient lineages of dog such as New Guinea singing dogs form a distinct lineage separate from modern domestic dogs that have undergone successive generations of artificial selection.

What’s at stake?

Even acknowledging the dingo’s uncertain and distant past, lumping dingoes and dogs together is unjustified.

Labelling dingoes as “feral domestic dogs” or some other misnomer ignores their unique, long, and quintessentially wild history in Australia.




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Why do some graziers want to retain, not kill, dingoes?


Inappropriate naming also has serious implications for their treatment. Any label less than “dingo” can be used to justify their legal persecution.

Further loss of dingoes could have serious, negative ecological consequences, including potentially placing other Australian native animals at increased risk of extinction.The Conversation

Bradley Smith, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, CQUniversity Australia; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology, Flinders University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Justin W. Adams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University; Kylie M Cairns, Adjunct associate lecturer, UNSW, and Mathew Crowther, Associate professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dingo dinners: what’s on the menu for Australia’s top predator?


Tim Doherty, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney

The dingo is Australia’s largest land-based predator, occurring across most of the mainland and on many nearshore islands.

Our new research, published in the journal Mammal Review, reveals the breadth and diversity of dingo diets across the continent.

We compiled and analysed 73 sets of data, containing details of more than 32,000 dingo droppings or stomach contents, to document the range of different species that dingoes eat, and how their diets vary between different environments.

A wide-ranging diet

We found that dingoes eat at least 229 vertebrate species. This includes 62 small mammals (less than 500 grams in mass), 79 medium-sized and larger mammals, 10 species of hoofed mammals, 50 birds and 26 reptiles. Dingoes also eat insects, crustaceans, centipedes, fish and frogs.

The true number of species is likely to be much higher because dingo diets have been poorly studied in many parts of Australia, such as Cape York Peninsula.




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Large (at least 7kg) and medium-sized (0.5-6.9kg) mammals were the most common components of dingo diets, followed by small mammals, rabbits, arthropods, reptiles, birds and hoofed animals.

Average occurrence of eight food types in the diet of dingoes. Values represent the percentage of droppings/stomachs that contained each food type.

A range of introduced pest species also feature in dingo diets, including deer, goats, rabbits, hares, black rats, house mice, foxes and cats. In recent decades, the occurrence of sambar deer in dingo diets has increased as this invasive species has expanded its range.

Dingoes also eat sheep and cattle, although dietary samples are unable to distinguish between predation and scavenging, and hence tell us little about dingo impacts on livestock production. Dietary samples also do not reveal instances of dingoes killing livestock without eating them.

Regional variation

We found that what dingoes eat depends on where they live. For instance, in arid central Australia, birds, reptiles, rabbits, small mammals and insects form major parts of dingo diets. In contrast, these food groups are less important in temperate and subtropical eastern Australia, where medium-sized and large mammals such as kangaroos, bandicoots and possums are more important.

Frequency of different food groups in dingoes’ diet. Each circle represents a study and is scaled proportionally with dietary occurrence; larger circles represent a higher frequency of that food type. Top row: arthropods and small mammals (less than 500g); middle row: reptiles and medium-sized mammals (0.5-6.9kg); bottom row: rabbits and large mammals (at least 7kg).

The higher occurrence of medium-sized mammals in dingo diets in eastern Australia may be due to the lower extinction rates of native mammals there. In contrast, central Australia is a global mammal extinction hotspot, which probably accounts for the low occurrence of medium-sized mammals in dingo diets in arid and semi-arid areas.

Nonetheless, one medium-sized mammal was a major food item for dingoes in arid areas: the European rabbit. In some areas, more than 50% of dingo droppings or stomachs contained the remains of this invasive species. It is possible that native medium-sized mammals previously constituted a major part of dingo diets in arid Australia, but have since been replaced by rabbits.

Local prey availability plays a major role in determining what dingoes eat. For instance, in the Tanami Desert, reptiles were most common in dingo diets during warmer months when they are most active. However, very few studies have collected data on prey availability, partly because of the sheer number of different animals that dingoes eat.

Threatened species

Dingoes kill or eat at least 39 native species that are classed as threatened or near-threatened on the IUCN Red List. These include the northern quoll, golden bandicoot and bridled nailtail wallaby.

This tally is higher than the number of threatened species in feral cat diets (based on a previous study that used similar methods), even though cats eat almost twice as many different species overall as dingoes (400 and 229, respectively).




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Today’s threatened native species co-existed with dingoes for a long time before European colonisation, which means they were able to withstand dingo predation without going extinct.

But now a combination of small population sizes of some threatened species and exacerbating factors such as habitat loss, foxes and cats means some threatened species could be vulnerable to even low levels of dingo predation. Predation by dingoes should therefore be a key consideration when attempting to conserve or restore threatened species.

Dietary studies are one way we can understand how dingoes interact with other species. Our study also highlights that we still have much to learn about our native top predator. In many parts of Australia, the favourite foods of dingoes are still a mystery.


The authors acknowledge the contribution of Naomi Davis, Dave Forsyth, Mike Letnic, Russell Palmer, Joe Benshemesh, Glenn Edwards, Jenny Lawrence, Lindy Lumsden, Charlie Pascoe, Andy Sharp, Danielle Stokeld, Cecilia Myers, Georgeanna Story, Paul Story, Barbara Triggs, Mark Venosta and Mike Wysong to this research.The Conversation

Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Thomas Newsome, Lecturer, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.