We’ve heard of many animals gone extinct – the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger; and we’ve heard of many being rediscovered by scientists after decades of ‘extinction’. This miraculous feat has once again been achieved in 2016, confirming the existence of another species previously thought to be extinct.
For over 40 years, the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog has been thought to be extinct in the wild. They are believed to be one of the rarest and most primitive species of canines, and a variant of the New Guinea Singing Dog (Canis dingo hallstromi) – the two are thought to once be the same species, before humans took wild dogs from the highlands and bred them into the Singing Dogs we know now. Although the Singing Dog are still bred in zoos, little has been heard of the Highland Wild Dog. However, in 2016, this all changed.
American Zoologist James McIntyre led an expedition in the 1990’s to try and capture evidence of these dogs, but only managed to hear howls at dawn and dusk. In 2016, he led another expedition, consisting of researchers from the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation (NGHWDF) and the University of Papua, to the most remote region on Earth – Puncak Jaya, the highest peak in the Papua Province of Indonesia (which lies to the west of Papua New Guinea).
Here they played audio recordings of coyote howls and left bare footprints to attract the dogs’ attention, and were rewarded with fresh paw prints next to theirs. Emboldened by this, they set up cameras laced with scents, hoping to capture some images. In the end, over 140 image were obtained of at least 15 individual dogs, including males, females and pups. They also managed to obtain faecal samples, which they used to perform DNA analyses.
The confirmation of a population of New Guinea Highland Wild Dogs is a very exciting prospect, not only in terms of conservation, but also for evolutionary research. DNA analysis from the collected faecal samples confirmed the close relationship of the Highland Wild Dogs to the Singing Dogs as well as Australian dingo (Canis lupus dingo). Already, this supports the theory that Australia and New Guinea were once connected by a land bridge, over which humans and dogs crossed to Australia, before being cut off by a rise in sea levels, leading to an evolutionary branch that resulted in dingos in Australia and Highland Dogs in New Guinea. These wild dogs are thought to be what dogs were like just before they were domesticated, and scientists are excited to learn more about their evolution.
Below: Wild Dog puppies, named Two Socks, Lil Red and Markie, sniffing a laced scent near a camera. Photo supplied by the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation.
Written by Khanh Nguyen, Year 11