Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Dingo Skull Resists Cross-Breeding

The dingo is resistant to one of the main threats to its survival as a species – changes to skull shape brought about by cross-breeding with dogs, according to a University of NSW study published in Evolutionary Biology (www.tinyurl.com/gt58s6h).

The study found that the dingo’s skull shape has remained unchanged by cross-breeding, overturning long-held fears that cross-breeding with dogs may result in the loss of the predator’s ecological niche.

“We know that cross-breeding has an effect on the dingo gene pool, but what we didn’t know until now is whether cross-breeding changes the dingo skull,” said lead author Dr William Parr. “This study has shown us that the dingo skull shape, which in part determines feeding ability, is more dominant than dog skull shapes.”

Conservationists and ecologists had worried that any change in the animals’ skull shape through hybridisation could alter feeding habits, potentially causing knock-on effects throughout the entire ecosystem.

The team used CT scanners to make 3D models of the skulls of dingoes, domestic dogs and hybrids. They then analysed the scans to determine whether skulls could be correctly assigned to one of the three groups based on their shape, and found that hybrid skulls were indistinguishable from those of the dingo – either with the naked eye or statistically.

Canis dingo was largely isolated from other canids – dogs, wolves, foxes and jackals – after it was introduced to the Australian continent around 3000 years ago. However, this changed when European settlers arrived with domestic dogs.

The researchers think that the dominance of the dingo’s skull shape is most likely due to recessive, and potentially adverse, traits fixed in dogs, with many breeds having narrower gene pools than the dingo. “This is the result of selective breeding to maintain breed standards, or selecting for useful working traits,” Parr said.