Research suggests that more than half of Australia’s dingoes are genetically pure, not hybrids

<span>Photograph: Martin Harvey/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Martin Harvey/Getty Images

Most dingoes in Australia are pure dingoes rather than hybrids, new research suggests.

New genetic analysis shows that a significantly greater proportion of wild dingo populations are purer than previously thought, with less dog lineage than scientists once estimated.

The finding has important consequences for dingo conservation and management, researchers say.

Analysing DNA from 391 wild and captive dingoes from across Australia, researchers found that 69% of wild and 63% of captive animals were pure dingoes.

In Victoria, where previous research had suggested the pure dingoes made up as little as 4%-18% of the dingo population, the new analysis found 87.1% of animals tested were pure.

In New South Wales, the figure was 58% pure dingoes, compared with a previous estimate of 25%.

The researchers also found there were four genetically distinct populations of wild dingoes, and a fifth group made up of captive dingoes.

Related: Scientists find dingoes genetically different from domestic dogs after decoding genome

“We don’t know exactly why we have these different populations, but we think that it’s possibly due to adaptation to the different habitats or climates found around Australia,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Kylie Cairns, a conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales.

Whether these four dingo groups physically differ will require more investigation.

“Captive breeding organisations have basically mixed dingoes from different areas, so the captive population is like a [genetic] amalgamation of the various different types,” Cairns said.

The researchers used a new genetic technique that analysed DNA at 195,000 positions along the genome, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms. Previous dingo testing, in comparison, generally only looked at 23 DNA markers.

Fewer animals were tested than in a 2021 study Cairns co-authored, which analysed more than 5000 samples using the older method. In the new study, Cairns had results for 112 animals using both DNA testing methods.

Cairns said the comparison showed “the old method of DNA testing wasn’t very reliable.

“It was assuming that there was just one type of dingo, and that therefore any differences between dingoes across the country was because of hybridisation – when we found it’s actually because there are different types of dingoes.”

Cairns said the finding had important conservation implications. “We need to have a discussion about how we’re managing dingoes in the landscape and whether we as a society think that it’s acceptable to be culling a native animal in the manner that we are.

“These animals are dingoes or have more dingo ancestry than anything else. When we describe them in public policy and legislation we should be describing them as dingoes – the term ‘wild dog’ is misleading the general public.”

Prof Euan Ritchie, an expert in wildlife ecology and conservation at Deakin University, who was not involved in the study, said: “This study adds considerably to a growing body of evidence that Australia’s much-maligned native canid, the dingo, is likely frequently misrepresented and because of this, also mismanaged.

“Far from being just ‘wild dogs’ – and often dispatched through lethal control programs – it appears most individuals studied are dingoes and that their genetic diversity across Australia is greatly under-appreciated.

Related: Most wild dogs killed across rural Australia are pure dingoes, DNA research says

“More broadly, I think this study encourages us to reckon with a colonial mindset and the way it influences human-wildlife conflict in this country. We need to better appreciate Australia’s amazing wildlife that precedes European colonisation, and to make better use of new and innovative tools that can allow for dingoes and livestock production to coexist more harmoniously.

“We also know that dingoes can reduce and alter the numbers and behaviour of feral cats and foxes in some environments, indirectly benefiting other wildlife.”

The research was published in the journal Molecular Ecology.