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The New Guinea Singing Dog, a dingo-like animal with a unique howling style, was considered extinct in the wild. But scientists reported Monday that the dogs live on, based on DNA collected by an intrepid and indefatigable field researcher.
Their analysis, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the dogs are not simply common village dogs that decided to try their chances in the wild. The findings not only solve a persistent, though obscure puzzle, they may shed light on the complicated and still emerging picture of dog domestication in Asia and Oceania.
Claudio Sillero, a conservation biologist at Oxford University and the chair of the canid specialist group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said that the study confirms the close relatedness between Australian and New Guinea dogs, “the most ancient ‘domestic’ dogs on earth.”
James McIntyre, president of the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation and the researcher whose forays in the field were central to the discovery, first searched for New Guinea Singing Dogs in the forbiddingly rugged highlands of the island, which is split between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, in 1996. He was taking a break from studying intersex pigs in Vanuatu, but that’s another story. Mr. McIntyre has degrees in zoology and education, and has worked at the Bronx Zoo and other zoos, private conservation organizations and as a high school biology teacher.
There are highly inbred populations of the dogs in zoos, and some are kept as exotic pets. But for more than a half-century they remained elusive in the wild until 2012 when an ecotourism guide snapped a photo of a wild dog in the highlands of Indonesia’s Papua province. It was the first seen since the 1950s, and Mr. McIntyre set to work. He received some funding from a mining company, PT Freeport Indonesia. The company, which has a history of conflict with the local population over environmental and safety issues and murky connections to the Indonesian military, operates a gold mine in the highlands near the wild dog sightings. In 2016 he spent about a month searching and captured 149 photos of 15 individual dogs.
“The locals called them the Highland wild dog,” he said. “The New Guinea Singing Dog was the name developed by Caucasians. Because I didn’t know what they were, I just called them the Highland wild dogs.”
But whether they were really the wild singing dogs that had been considered extinct was the big question. Even the singing dogs kept in captivity were a conundrum to scientists who couldn’t decide whether they were a breed, a species or a subspecies. Were these wild dogs the same as the captive population? Or were they village dogs gone feral recently?
In 2018, Mr. McIntyre went back to Papua and managed to get DNA from two trapped wild dogs, quickly released after biological samples were taken, as well as one other dog that was found dead. He brought the DNA to researchers who concluded that the highland dogs Mr. McIntyre found are not village dogs, but appear to belong to the ancestral line from which the singing dogs descended.
“For decades we’ve thought that the New Guinea singing dog is extinct in the wild,” said Heidi G. Parker of the National Institutes of Health, who worked with Suriani Surbakti and other researchers from Indonesia and other countries on analyzing the DNA samples that Mr. McIntyre returned.
“They are not extinct,” Dr. Parker said. “They actually do still exist in the wild.”
The highland dogs had about 72 percent of their genes in common with their captive singing cousins. The highland dogs had much more genetic variation, which would be expected for a wild population. The captive dogs in conservation centers all descend from seven or eight wild ancestors.
The 28 percent difference between the wild and captive varieties may come from some interbreeding with village dogs or from the common ancestor of all the dogs brought to Oceania. The captive, inbred dogs may simply have lost a lot of the variation that the wild dogs have.
Their genes could help reinvigorate the captive population of a few hundred animals in conservation centers, which are very inbred.
Elaine A. Ostrander of the N.I.H., a co-author of the report, says the finding is also significant for understanding more about dog domestication. The New Guinea Singing Dogs are closely related to Australian dingoes and are also related to the Asian dogs that migrated with humans to Oceania 3,500 years ago or more. It may be that the singing dogs split off around then from a common ancestor that later gave rise to breeds like the Akita and Shiba Inu.
“They provide this missing piece that we didn’t really have before,” Dr. Ostrander said.
Laurent Frantz, an evolutionary geneticist at Queen Mary University of London who studies the domestication and evolution of dogs and was not involved in the research, said the paper makes clear “that these populations have been continuous for a long time.”
But exactly when and where the dogs became feral and “what is wild, what is domestic” are still thorny questions, which the new data will help to address.
Mr. McIntyre did finish his work on the intersex pigs of Vanuatu, by the way, and you can find out more at the website of the Southwest Pacific Research Project. They are bred on purpose because they are highly valued by islanders.