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Dingoes are part domestic dog, part wolf (sort of)

A photo of a male dingo standing in the Australian outback.
A male dingo standing in the Australian outback. (Image credit: Jami Tarris via Getty Images)

Dingoes are Australia's largest land predator, but their evolutionary history has been shrouded in mystery and debated for decades. Now, a new study finds that they are genetically somewhere between a wolf and a modern domestic dog.

Researchers sequenced the genome of a "pure" dingo puppy that was discovered alive by a roadside in the central Australian desert, according to a statement (opens in new tab) released by La Trobe University in Melbourne. When compared with the DNA of domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and a wolf (Canis lupus), the dingo pup’s DNA identified dingoes as an "intermediary" between wolves and domestic dog breeds, researchers recently reported

“It gives us much clearer insight into how the dingo evolved, which is fascinating from a scientific point of view, but also opens up all sorts of new ways to monitor their health and ensure their long-term survival,” study co-author Bill Ballard, a professor of evolutionary genomics at La Trobe University, said in the statement. 

Scientists suggest that humans brought the ancestors of modern dingoes to Australia between 5,000 and 8,500 years ago, but it's not clear where these ancient dogs were in the domestication process when they first arrived. Modern dog breeds weren't introduced to Australia until 1788, so dingoes were also separated from other dogs for thousands of years.

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Dingoes are apex predators and have been top of the food chain in Australia since Tasmanian tigers (Thylacinus cynocephalus) disappeared from mainland Australia at least 2,000 years ago (Tasmanian tigers survived on the island of Tasmania until 1936, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (opens in new tab)). Dingoes may have contributed to the extinction of Tasmanian tigers by competing with them for food, according to the Australian Museum (opens in new tab)

After arriving in Australia, dingoes' ancestors adapted to eat marsupials, including kangaroos, as well as reptiles. One difference between dingoes and most domesticated dog breeds is that dingoes — like wolves — have only one copy of the amylase-producing gene AMY2B, which breaks down starch. This reduces dingoes' ability to digest starch and suggests that dingoes have a protein-rich diet, as wolves do. By comparison, most domestic dog breeds have multiple copies of AMY2B, so they can handle a starch-rich diet that is more similar to a human diet. 

Today, dingoes interbreed with feral dogs — domestic dogs living in the wild — further complicating their status. A 2015 study published in the journal Molecular Ecology (opens in new tab) found widespread hybridization between dingoes and domestic dogs, potentially threatening dingo survival and disrupting their role in the Australian ecosystem.

The study was published April 22 in the journal Science Advances (opens in new tab).

Originally published on Live Science.

Patrick Pester is a staff writer for Live Science. His background is in wildlife conservation and he has worked with endangered species around the world. Patrick holds a master's degree in international journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K. and is currently finishing a second master's degree in biodiversity, evolution and conservation in action at Middlesex University London.