The rocky hillsides of Papua New Guinea have been unusually quiet over the past few decades, leading many to worry that the New Guinea singing dog had slipped into extinction in the wild. Thankfully, a new genetic analysis has suggested this ancient breed of wild dog is still thriving deep in the wilds of Indonesia.
As its name makes perfectly clear, the New Guinea singing dog is a species of canine native to Papua New Guinea that’s noted for its unique harmonic howls. While a couple of hundred individuals can be found in captivity, most scientists had assumed the population had disappeared from the wild since the 1970s.
In more recent years, however, there have been a number of sightings of Highland Wild Dogs in Papua New Guinea, a dog with a strikingly similar appearance to the New Guinea singing dogs. To understand the link between these hounds, an international team of scientists used DNA-based evidence to sniff out the ancestral relationship between Highland Wild Dogs and captive New Guinea singing dogs.
Reporting their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team discovered that the two dogs are extremely closely related members of the dog species Canis lupus familiaris. There were some minor genetic differences that are to be expected given their separation for several decades; for example, the genome of New Guinea singing dogs in captivity has become increasingly burdened by inbreeding and the Highland Wild Dogs had some intertwining with local village dogs.
However, the researchers found that they are both essentially ancient "proto-dogs" and though each contains genomic variants across their genomes that do not exist in other present-day dogs, they are effectively the same breed, which means the New Guinea singing dog was never extinct.
A female New Guinea singing dog sings at San Diego Zoo.
"We found that New Guinea singing dogs and the Highland Wild Dogs have very similar genome sequences, much closer to each other than to any other canid known. In the tree of life, this makes them much more related to each other than modern breeds such as German shepherd or Bassett hound," Dr Heidi Parker, a scientist at the National Human Genome Research Institute who led the genomic analysis, said in a statement.
The new discovery could help out the conservation of this unique breed of wild dog. Captivity has led to high levels of inbreeding between the few hundred known New Guinea singing dogs. Now it’s clear they could be safely bred with Highland Wild Dogs, it could inject some much needed genetic diversity back into the population and help towards their numbers in the wild.
It could also reveal another slice of the story of the domestication of dogs by ancient humans.
"By getting to know these ancient, proto-dogs more, we will learn new facts about modern dog breeds and the history of dog domestication," added Dr Elaine Ostrander, senior study author and Distinguished Investigator at the US National Institutes of Health. "After all, so much of what we learn about dogs reflects back on humans."