Truths and lies about dingoes

Dingoes have been in Australia for some 4,000 to 5,000 years, but they are now on the decline.

Carlos López Molina/Flickr

Dingoes are the wolves of Australia, and like wolves, they’re both hated and loved. This subspecies (Canis lupus dingo) of the gray wolf has had a rocky history.

The wild dogs first arrived on the continent some 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, a time when Australia’s top predator was the thylacine (a.k.a. the Tasmanian tiger). The thylacine went extinct on the mainland (more on that later), leaving the dingo at the top of the heap. Aboriginal Australians had a positive relationship with dingoes and even gave them names.

But when Europeans arrived and began raising lots of sheep and cattle, they viewed the dingo as a threat. They placed bounties on dingoes’ heads, poisoned them with strychnine baits and even built a 5,600-kilometer-long fence to keep the dogs out of prime pasturelands. Dingo numbers plummeted. Interbreeding with domestic dogs has left few pure dingoes in some regions of Australia. The population is considered to be on the decline, and the animals are classified as vulnerable to extinction.

With such a rich history, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of myths about the animals.

“A dingo’s got my baby!”

TRUE. Lindy Chamberlain yelled this on the night of August 17, 1980, a line made famous by Meryl Streep depicting Chamberlain in the 1988 movie, A Cry in the Dark (and later immortalized in an episode of Seinfeld). Chamberlain and her family were camping near Uluru in the Australian outback when she saw a dingo drag her baby girl Azaria out of the tent. By morning, however, despite the presence of dingo tracks, people got suspicious about Chamberlain and her husband. And in November 1982, Chamberlain was convicted of her baby’s murder and her husband as an accessory to the crime. A royal commission eventually found reason to doubt the evidence — a supposedly bloody handprint, for example, had never been tested for blood — and the Chamberlains were exonerated in 1987. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the coroner officially changed the cause of death on baby Azaria’s death certificate.

Part of the reason that people didn’t believe the Chamberlains was that, at the time, dingoes didn’t have a reputation for attacking people. Since then, however, there have been more dingo attacks. Just this month, one couple in Queensland reported having to flee a pack of seven dingoes that were stalking them.

Dingoes are devastating to livestock farmers.

UNCLEAR. The Australian sheep population fell from a high of 180 million in 1970 to 68 million in 2009–2010, and dingoes have gotten a lot of blame for the decline. Actual sheep kills by dingoes, however, account for only a small amount of animal loss — about 4,800 sheep are killed by dingoes each year in two big sheep-producing states, Victoria and New South Wales, out of a sheep population of 55 million. But farmers also have to spend money on mending fences and on other dingo control efforts, and that combined with dingo predation may be contributing to the decline in sheep farming, government researchers noted last year in the Australian Veterinary Journal.

Dingoes drove the thylacine extinct.

FALSE. Dingoes never spread to the island of Tasmania. Thylacines survived on that island until 1936. Tasmanian devils — which were extirpated on the mainland probably around 3,000 years ago — still linger there. Those coincidences of predator survival on Tasmania led to the belief that competition and predation with dingoes drove the thylacine and devil extinct on mainland Australia before Europeans arrived.

Not so, says Thomas Prowse of the University of Adelaide. Prowse and his colleagues ran computer simulations of the interactions between dingoes, devils, thylacines, humans, prey species (such as kangaroos) and climate. The expanding human population and human predation on kangaroos were the biggest factors in the declines of thylacines and devils on the Australian mainland, the researchers reported last year in Ecology. Climate may have also contributed. “Vindication of the dingo for the extirpation of the thylacine and devil on mainland Australia puts people — and perhaps climate change — squarely in the frame,” Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong writes in a Perspectives piece about the dingo in the Jan. 10 Science.

Australia will do just fine without the dingo.

FALSE. The long dingo fence set up an accidental experiment, letting scientists study what happens when dingoes are removed from the Australian landscape. It turns out that dingoes help to keep herbivores under control. And without them, kangaroos and introduced red foxes are left unchecked, which leads to declines in grasses and small native animals. The extinction of some small marsupial species can even be traced to the rarity of dingoes.

That dingoes should be important for the balance of the Australian landscape isn’t all that surprising. Scientists have documented a range of effects when top mammalian carnivores are removed, including changes to abundances of bird, mammal, invertebrate and other animal species, alterations to disease dynamics and changes in the morphology of streams, William Ripple of Oregon State University and colleagues note in a review in the Jan. 10 Science. “One of the main ecological arguments for the conservation of large carnivores is that they are often capable of exerting strong regulatory effects on ecosystems,” the researchers write. But, they note, “it will probably take a change in human attitudes and actions to avoid imminent large-carnivore extinctions.” That statement applies to dingoes, too.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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