How dingoes got down under

Wild dogs known as dingoes live in Australia now, but biologists have long debated where these canines first arose. A new genetic study of dingoes supports the idea that they originated in Southeast Asia.

In their investigation, Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and his colleagues analyzed comparable sections of DNA from 211 dingoes as well as from domestic dogs and ancient bones found at archaeological sites in Polynesia. The researchers also consulted data from an earlier study of DNA in more than 600 dogs and several dozen wolves (SN: 11/23/02, p. 324: Three Dog Eves: Canine diaspora from East Asia to Americas).

The DNA sequences from about half of the dingoes were identical, and the rest had only slight variations from that norm, the researchers report in the Aug. 17 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The most common form of the DNA among the dingoes matched one in domestic dogs from East Asia and arctic North America.

Today’s Australian dingoes are probably descended from a small number of the Asian domestic dogs, perhaps even one pregnant protodingo female, say the researchers. That foremother didn’t get to the continent on her own, Savolainen and his colleagues assert. To reach Australia, even when sea levels were at their lowest, would have required a journey of at least 50 kilometers over open water. The researchers propose that about 5,000 years ago, dingo Eve hitchhiked there with a wave of human pioneers fanning out from Asia.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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