Dingos a unique species?

Australia’s dingo is a unique species, not a kind of wild dog as previously believed, according to a new study that definitively classifies the country’s largest land predator.

The research by Australian scientists, published in the Journal of Zoology, resurrected the species name Canis dingo, first adopted in 1793 by Friedrich Meyer, a German naturalist.

“What we’ve done is describe the dingo more scientifically,” Mike Letnic of the University of New South Wales told Reuters.

I have to say that I’m not convinced. But that’s because I’m somewhat archaic in what I use as the definition of a species. Which is that if something can breed and (regularly) produce fertile offspring then it’s the same species. So, donkeys and horses are close but not the same species, various of the smaller wildcats and domestic cats are the same species.

As dingos do happily breed with domesticated dogs they’re the same species.

But I agree, that’s not what most people use these days as their definition of a species.

And here’s something I’ve never known. Are Indian and African elephants (or even the plains African and the forest or pygmy African) the same species by my definition of cross breeding? Or not? Anyone know?

31 comments on “Dingos a unique species?

  1. Indian and Afdrican elephants can (and have) bred, but the offspring are not successful.

  2. But that’s because I’m somewhat archaic in what I use as the definition of a species.

    Isn’t this a case of what you keep saying, about experts sticking to their own field? That definition of species fails in too many cases to be all that useful.

  3. As far as I’m aware neither Australia nor S.America had indigenous mammals, the evolutionary niches being filled by marsupials. S.America got it’s mammals over the land bridge from N.America, whilst Australia remained isolated. So dingos must have been imported by humans & be related to Eurasian dogs. Whether they’re a separate species would depend on how long a species takes to evolve away from its precursor. Tricky ground this for the PC mob, because the implication would be the aborigines are also a separate species of homo sap. So best not go there, eh?

  4. a liger (lion/tiger cross) can *sometimes* breed with a tiger but not a lion. Like most things in nature, it’s a spectrum.

  5. ” Isn’t this a case of what you keep
    saying, about experts sticking to
    their own field? ”

    I think when someone speaks from an acknowledged position of ignorant curiosity this is no great sin – it’s when the grand pronouncements come down that we have a problem. When policies are dreamt up then triply so. Nowt wrong with wondering how something in another field works or we’d all be intellectually stunted.

    I was pondering something something similar the other day, about intermediate levels of classification like “genus” or “family”. How consistent are they, across different branches of the tree of life? Is a genus of fish as “closely” interrelated (by some metric) as a genus of mammals? Are plants in the heather family as closely related to one another as the family of predaceous diving beetles are? Is there even a meaningful metric or is that all done with cladistics now?

  6. Marsupials are mammals, and do have mammary glands, but they are not placental mammals.

    Trust me, I’m a tax advisor. And one of my departments at university was in the same building as the zoology department, too 🙂

  7. I apologise profusely. Placental mammals, it is. Roos & mates are marsupial mammals. And there’s monotremes to egg the cake further.
    But the point still stands. Dogs are placental mammals. Not natural drinkers at the sign of the 4X. And Quantas wasn’t flying back when. So they came in on a lead. So if dingos are now a separate species, what do we call the guy on the other end from the collar?
    I’m pretty sure they interbreed ’cause of Aussie Mick’s* missus ‘n that.
    *A most formidable biker but still vaguely human. Sometimes.

  8. My biology teacher used to say that “a species is whatever a taxonomist says it is”

    That was good enough for him, and it’s good enough for me. Hurrumph.

  9. bloke in spain – “As far as I’m aware neither Australia nor S.America had indigenous mammals, the evolutionary niches being filled by marsupials. S.America got it’s mammals over the land bridge from N.America, whilst Australia remained isolated.”

    Bats. Some rats and mice. Dugong. South America also has possums.

    “So dingos must have been imported by humans & be related to Eurasian dogs.”

    But Australians think that a dog introduced by Black people is a native species but a dog introduced by White people, the fox for instance, is a introduced pest.

    “Whether they’re a separate species would depend on how long a species takes to evolve away from its precursor. Tricky ground this for the PC mob, because the implication would be the aborigines are also a separate species of homo sap. So best not go there, eh?”

    No. The PC crowd are happy to humour Aborigines that they are, in fact, a separate order of evolution. It is the vile racist Right that insists Aborigines are part of the same species as the rest of us.

  10. I suspect that some confusion may be arising here because mankind has domesticated wolves at least three separate times in our history. So, even though dingoes are descended from domesticated wolves introduced by humans 5000 years ago, that doesn’t mean they’re the same as the domesticated wolves introduced by humans 200 years ago. And that distinction might be part of what the zoologists are trying to define here. They’ve also spent 5000 years living wild in an environment utterly unlike their ancestral one, which could be enough generations for speciation in its own right.

    Basically, Tim’s definition of species is a very good starting point and valid in most cases, but there are loads of interesting problems and exceptions. I’m not a biologist or zoologist, but I strongly suspect that experts will now commence arguing over whether dingoes are a species or a subspecies. Just as they do with domestic dogs, in fact — which were originally a species, then a subspecies, and Steve Jones said in the excellent Almost Like A Whale were now accepted as simply the same species as the wolf with too few genetic differences to warrant being regarded as a subspecies, but which Wikipedia now says are a subspecies again.

    Today must go down in history as the only time it’s actually been worthwhile reading the comments on The Guardian‘s site.

  11. Actually, reading the paper’s abstract and the direct quotes in the article, I suspect this is total misreporting by The Guardian. It doesn’t look like the paper’s authors were trying to make a point about speciation, but about properly describing what they already regarded as a separate species (which they acknowledge is controversial). The paper doesn’t even have “species” as one of its keywords.

  12. @SMfF
    The Americas have opossums. Possums with vowel pretensions. S.America also has camels & pyramids but, so far, has largely missed out on the religion-of-peace. Evolution & plate tectonics may be trying to tell us something.

  13. @”So Much for Subtlety
    April 2, 2014 at 11:59 am

    bloke in spain – “As far as I’m aware neither Australia nor S.America had indigenous mammals, the evolutionary niches being filled by marsupials. S.America got it’s mammals over the land bridge from N.America, whilst Australia remained isolated.”

    Bats. Some rats and mice. Dugong. South America also has possums.

    “So dingos must have been imported by humans & be related to Eurasian dogs.”

    But Australians think that a dog introduced by Black people is a native species but a dog introduced by White people, the fox for instance, is a introduced pest.”
    The fox has been in Australia for less than 200 years and could make some native species extinct. I think we can assume that the dingo on the other hand has already done all the harm it can do to Australia biodiversity and as is a separate species in its own is now a native species.

  14. oooh a subject I can comment on. I am a biologist and this is one of the subjects that energises biologists a lot, and folks with a political axe to grind even more. But first taxonomy, which is really just an attempt by humans to figure out and classify the living stuff that surrounds them. A bit like a librarian saying which shelf do I put that on. It is exceedingly useful, though not always exact, but if you are two scientists discussing a yellowish dog in Australia then having a common name to use clarifies the confusion.

    Not having microscopes and DNA analysis and other cute stuff meant having to adopt rules like can it breed and produce viable offspring for defining species. Very good way of classifying and very helpful and works a lot of the time. However when the biology folks got more sophisticated, and then the archeologists started to be able to dig stuff up and analyse their DNA then it is clear nature doesn’t obey present day human classifications. Which totally f***ed up everyones preconceived ideas of who had stuff in the right pigeonhole. To be fair to the scientists they did know it was just a classification and not ‘god-given’. But centuries of poli’s have used the scientific work to say ‘good’ “bad’ ‘undesirable’ ‘kill’ etc based on the poli’s god-like stature in within whatever State they happened to be oppressing people. So foxes in the UK are cuddly and in Aus pests. And etc with whatever group of humans you want to put into the ‘persecute’ categories

    The foxes are just looking for rabbits, chickens, baby humans or anything else that keeps them alive, including Mrs Fox. So were most humans, and the latest research into Neanderthals and H. Sapiens is wonderful to read.

    In whatever habitat a viable organism find itself with a competitive advantage it will thrive. As long as it can reproduce. And it doesn’t need to be able to reproduce sexually to spread across the world, with or without the help of humans. To add insult to injury it also doesn’t give a flying f**k what we call it either. So reading the Guardian for science reporting is like looking for zionist understanding in Mein Kampf.

  15. The “can they interbreed?” definition of species fell out of favour a long time ago, as far as I’m aware. But I thought dingoes were basically extinct as a separate (possibly sub) species due to interbreeding with wild, introduced dogs. Which raises interesting implications with regard to how long they’ve been here. Along with their masters. Oops, I live in Australia and you can’t say that. Ok, 60,000 years, whatever you say…

    Cats are an interesting point, one very differentiated species. It’s normal for Siamese/Tonkinese/Burmese cats to produce mixed litters – the offspring are classified according to their physical characteristics, They’re just not genetically diverse enough yet to remain stable. Judging by my Tonk, the sense of entitlement unites the breed though!

  16. bloke in spain – “The Americas have opossums. Possums with vowel pretensions.”

    I thought they were just poor Irish immigrants. O’Pussums. Although these days their dad may have been a feckless drunk Kenyan bigamist with no particular interest in his many offspring and a liking for Communism.

    “S.America also has camels & pyramids but, so far, has largely missed out on the religion-of-peace. Evolution & plate tectonics may be trying to tell us something.”

    Camelids! Not camels. Actually Australia does too. Last time I was there the countryside seemed to have more llamas than sheep.

    It is a pity, to tie two threads together, our forebears didn’t have the foresight to build some pyramids rather than the National Gallery. Hard for the Egyptian governments over the years to flog them off – and still Egypt’s main currency earner.

    David – “The fox has been in Australia for less than 200 years and could make some native species extinct. I think we can assume that the dingo on the other hand has already done all the harm it can do to Australia biodiversity and as is a separate species in its own is now a native species.”

    It is not clear it is a separate species, but let’s assume it is. A lot of this logic applies to Aborigines too. Except they have been there longer. Can we call them a separate species too?

  17. Ltw, Regarding all dingos are interbred I believe there is an isolated colony of dingos on an island somewhere that haven’t interbred with dogs that the government is trying to preserve.

    Not particularly relevant to this discussion but there is also the case where creatures can interbreed but choose not to, which can arguably be considered a species. I think there are some elephants which fall into this category.

  18. Gosh, I’m slow today. More coffee I think. Tim mentions at the end the very elephants I was thinking of. The forest elephants can interbreed with the plains elephants but chose not to. Is that a separate species?

  19. Was Darwin as lucky with his finches as Mendel was with his peas?
    That is, some creatures lose the ability to reproduce with closely related species faster than others?

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