Solving the Mystery of New Guinea’s Highland Wild Dogs

Research pointing to origins of this rare canine could aid conservation efforts.

The highlands of New Guinea echo with strange, whale-like howls. These ghostly vocalizations emanate from an unexpected source. Improbably, a little-known canine prowls the steep mountains that bisect the world’s second-largest island, picking its way along treacherous outcrops and extracting a living from some of the least explored terrain on the planet.

A New Guinea highland wild dog captured on film by a camera trap. The dogs were feared extinct in their native range until 2012. Photo by James McIntyre, New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation.

Few have gotten close enough to take photographs of the shy and elusive New Guinea highland wild dog. The remote slopes that it calls home are characterized by freezing rain and sparse human settlements. For all its hostile beauty, the region is not exactly a postcard destination.

The dogs were feared extinct in their native range until an adventure guide snapped a shot of a single dog in 2012. Researcher James McIntyre of the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation and his team followed up on the sighting with a trip to West Papua, the Indonesian part of the island, in 2016. Their efforts paid off when several of the dogs unwittingly posed for their trail cameras.

In 2018, the researchers returned, ultimately trapping their quarry and taking blood samples.

These vials of blood would contain the answer to a pressing question in canine taxonomy, a field of study fraught with competing theories about how the wild and domestic canids of the world relate to each other. Were New Guinea highland dogs a distinct evolutionary entity, or were they simply feral domestic animals, little different from the many breeds we see walking our streets today?

Coiled in the DNA of the unsuspecting donors were signatures that would establish their relationship to two other canines and provide an essential clue in unraveling the mystery of their evolution, according to a 2020 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

One, known as the New Guinea singing dog, is now only found in captivity and was believed by some to be just another obscure domestic breed. The small population is derived from a handful of New Guinea highland wild dogs captured in the late 1950s and in the 1970s. It was not known at the time of their capture whether or not their ancestors were actually wild animals. The other is more familiar: the dingo of Australia. To the untrained eye, these three creatures are nearly indistinguishable — tawny brown and lanky, with pointy, wolfish ears. Now we know why.

Analysis of DNA from all three of these populations by researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), Texas A&M, and the University of New South Wales has shown conclusively that the New Guinea singing dog and the New Guinea highland wild dog are one and the same.

The findings also place the singing dog and the highland wild dog, along with the dingo, on their very own branch of the canine family tree, totally distinct from the many domestic breeds for which genetic data is available.

“The dingo and the New Guinea highland wild dog and the New Guinea singing dog form this distinct evolutionary lineage,” says Kylie Cairns, co-chair of the Dingo Working Group at the IUCN. Cairns, who worked on the paper, researches canine genetics at the University of New South Wales.

“We looked at their genomes,” expounds NHGRI staff scientist and co-author Heidi G. Parker. “They have almost nothing in common with the rest of the breed dogs.”

They also seem, at least to these researchers, to be truly wild. The animals living in the highlands do so without any human assistance, living and breeding on their own, though their ancestors may have originally traveled to the island in the company of people thousands of years ago.

“There was a thought that perhaps this New Guinea singing dog was just a gimmick dog … with no proof that it ever lived in the wild,” notes McIntyre, a co-author on the paper.

Even Brian Davis, the Texas A&M researcher who conceptualized the study, was initially skeptical, “I was afraid that was just gonna be some admixed, random-bred village dog,” he recalls. “Turns out it’s an exciting ancestral population that has just been out of contact with the remainder of dog-dom.”

Another study released later in 2020 has reinforced these conclusions. Published in Science, this research asserts that the New Guinea highland wild dog lineage extends 11,000 years back, and that the dogs belong to one of five major groups that led to our current population of domestic dogs after they diverged from wild wolves. Unlike the other groups, the highland wild dog group is essentially frozen in time. If it is “domestic” at all, it is a domestic fossil, detached from its human origins and living independently for hundreds of generations.

The wild dogs living in the New Guinea highlands do so without any human assistance, living and breeding on their own, though their ancestors may have originally traveled to the island in the company of people thousands of years ago. Photo by James McIntyre, New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation.

“There may have been some role of domestication in their ancient past,” Cairns suggests, “but they are [now] wild canines like wolves or coyotes or jackals.”

The new research also sheds light on the origin of the dingo.

One of the prevailing hypotheses explaining the arrival of the dingo in Australia has dogs migrating out of mainland Asia and into New Guinea, then over a land bridge that once connected New Guinea to Australia. There, they adapted to the harsh climate and became their own species or subspecies.

“Those connections finally ended about 8,000 years ago as sea levels rose following the end of the last Ice Age,” explains James Serpell, a canine researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved with the study. “In other words, prior to this time, the dogs of this Australia-New Guinea continent would have comprised a single, contiguous population.”

These findings could change conservation priorities for the animals. In 2019, an analysis by the Canid Specialist Group of the IUCN recommended that New Guinea highland wild dogs and dingos should both be considered feral dogs — that is, domestic dogs that had escaped captivity. They were thus removed from the IUCN Red List — which flags species of special concern for conservation protections — despite their unknown population levels and the threats posed to their habitat by mining and other activities.

The move was not well-received by the research community. “It was a bit disheartening to me, because I already knew what the results were,” McIntyre says ruefully, referring to the fact that his research showed the dogs are in fact a discrete, wild lineage far removed from domestication as we currently understand it. “We just hadn’t published yet.”

It also drew attention to the IUCN’s policy of excluding animals with domestication in their history from the Red List. “I think this method is flawed when it comes to organisms that have a very tight relationship with humans, and can therefore be very valuable at a population (and not species) level,” asserts Laura Botigué, group leader of the Plant and Animal Genomics Program at the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona.

Still, some remain skeptical of the impact that these new findings will have on conservation efforts. That’s because the 2020 research found signatures indicating that highland wild dogs carry some DNA that may derive from other dog breeds. (For their part, the authors suggest that these variations are likely attributable to ancestral interbreeding with other ancient domestic dogs and, regardless, ought not to have any bearing on its conservation status.)

“Until the genetic admixture issue is resolved or until a pure (unadmixed) [highland wild dog] is found I think relisting by the IUCN is unlikely,” imparts Sankar Subramanian, senior lecturer in genetics at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia.

Despite the uncertainty, even some at the IUCN — in addition to Cairns — are sympathetic to the dog’s plight. “Although technically feral dogs, they occupy an important predator niche in their adopted ranges. Their ecological role should not be underestimated,” Claudio Sillero, chair of the Canid Specialist Group, explained in a media statement.

The presence of the New Guinea highland wild dog has major impacts on other organisms. The tree kangaroos and possums of highland New Guinea would have very different lives if there were no wild dogs, which find them delicious. The dogs’ dingo cousins, too, are crucial predators in Australian ecosystems. A 2019 study found that they are important controllers of feral cats, which have wreaked havoc on Australia’s native wildlife, for example.

Still, the IUCN line of thinking has encouraged most larger zoos to divest themselves of their singing dogs in recent decades. Even the San Diego Zoo, once home to the founding pair in the US, no longer keeps them, though they were popular and engaging animals.

“Because of our close relationship,” recalls wildlife care specialist Jennifer Moll, “we were able to take them for walks around the zoo so guests could get a closer view and possibly hear them talking or singing to each other.” Moll cared for the zoo’s last pair until 2014, when they died due to old age.

The descendants of those dogs now reside at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Springs, California. About 200 more singing dogs belong to private owners — some of whom supplied the samples necessary to conduct the study. A mere 26 are registered in the Zoological Information Management Software (ZIMS) database, which tracks the holdings of some 1,100 zoos worldwide.

For animals whose fates are threatened in the wild, captive populations can serve as reminders that they exist and as repositories for genetic material. While holding animals captive in zoos is controversial, zoos can support conservation by educating the public, conducting scientific research, advancing veterinary medicine, and raising money for conservation programs. The New Guinea highland wild dog does not yet have this sort of institutional support — making its continued survival that much more tenuous.

More research remains to be done, in New Guinea particularly. The researchers would like to learn just how widely the dogs are distributed, and are curious to see how DNA from even-more remote populations differs. They plan to take samples of blood, skin, and semen to further their research. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has put their plans on hold, and civil discord may impede future quests: Papuan rebels, unhappy with Indonesian sovereignty, are known to frequent the area and have fired upon convoys heading to the local mines.

McIntyre and company are committed to the effort nonetheless. Full genome analysis has the potential to shed further light on these obscure canines and their relationship to the rest of the canine family tree. And the harvest of semen from wild specimens may be the salvation of the highly inbred captive singers, who are beginning to suffer the consequences of their small gene pool.

Until then, we must hope that the dog’s wily ways will keep it alive and well as it ekes out a living in the otherworldly New Guinea highlands.

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