The haunting, plaintive wail of New Guinean singing dogs once resounded throughout the island’s lush mountains and valleys. Today, with the wild population thought to have gone extinct decades ago, the songs of these secretive canines—close cousins of the Australian dingo—are heard only by zoogoers. But a new study suggests wild dogs living near a gold mine in New Guinea’s highlands are in fact the same animals. If confirmed, the wild dogs could help save New Guinean singing dogs around the world.
It’s not clear exactly when New Guinean singing dogs or their forebears arrived on the large Indonesian island north of Australia. The earliest evidence of dingoes down under dates to about 3500 years ago, and many archaeologists think the tan, short-haired, singing dogs—which are about the size of a border collie—showed up on New Guinea around the same time, possibly brought over by boat.
Today, between 200 and 300 New Guinean singing dogs live in zoos and sanctuaries around the world, but there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting in the wild since the 1970s, when human development rapidly expanded into their habitat. Still, locals have claimed for years that they’ve occasionally heard the dogs’ wailing.
Enter the highland wild dog, an equally mysterious canine known only from anecdotal observations and two photographs taken in 1989 and 2012. To learn more about these canines, zoologist James McIntyre led a field expedition to the highlands of Papua on the island’s western half near one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, Grasberg Mine. On that expedition, McIntyre and colleagues, including scientists from the University of Papua, photographed and collected fecal samples from 15 highland wild dogs—which looked, acted, and howled an awful lot like New Guinean singing dogs. Two years later, the researchers managed to trap and collect blood samples from three of the animals.
The scientists sequenced the genomes of the three dogs and compared their nuclear DNA to that of 16 captive New Guinean singing dogs, 25 dingoes, and more than 1000 dogs from 161 other breeds. The highland wild dogs and New Guinean singing dogs have nearly identical genetic profiles, they report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Both are also closely related to dingoes, and slightly more distantly to other dogs of East Asian origin like the chow chow, Akita, and shiba inu.
The New Guinean singing dogs’ genome has degraded because of inbreeding, and the highland wild dogs’ genome contains bits from local village dogs, but they are essentially the same dog, explains study co-author Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist at the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute.
That would make them “a fantastic population for conservation biology,” she says. Plagued by years of inbreeding, researchers fear captive singing dogs could soon have trouble reproducing. If they could be bred with these highland dogs, it could preserve the population and reintroduce some of the genetic diversity that’s been lost over years of captivity. It’s also possible, she adds, that further study of the dogs’ genomes could reveal how—and why—the dogs maintain a vocal repertoire that is “like nothing else we’ve heard in nature.”
Peter Dwyer, a zoologist at the University of Melbourne, says the work is a “very useful” study for ongoing work disentangling the relationships between dogs in New Guinea. But he cautions more evidence would be needed to conclude that New Guinea singing dogs represent a unique, archaic population of dogs, distinct from other dogs on the island. Rather, Dwyer says his own work suggests the singing dogs may be descendants of village dogs, some of which share many of the characteristics of the highland wild dogs living near the Grasberg mine.
*Correction, 1 September, 10:28 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the views of Peter Dwyer.