Dingo

Canis Dingo

Few Australian native animals trigger such strong emotions as the dingo.
This beautiful canid is extremely adaptable, resilient and intelligent.

Open 7 Days from 9am to 4pm

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It has been an important apex predator in the Australian landscape for thousands of years, and deserves our respect and our protection.

Yet dingoes are reviled, trapped and poisoned in many parts of the country.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The genus name Canis is the Latin word for dog.  The name dingo comes from dingu’ meaning ‘tame dog’ in the Dharug language of the Indigenous Australians of the Sydney area. The first British colonists to arrive in Australia in 1788 established a settlement at Port Jackson and noted “dingoes” living with Indigenous Australians.

​ Dingoes were revered by Indigenous nations as ‘creators’, who were an irreplaceable part of Country and equal to man. Indigenous Australians would often acquire dingo pups from dens and tame them. They were shown great affection, and were given names, slept with humans at night, and were protected jealously.

Referring to a dingo as a ‘wild dog’ is incorrect, as technically, dingoes – which include New Guinea singing dogs – are part of the canid family, but their lineage, thought to diverge 8000-12,000 years ago from their ancestral population, is distinct from that of domesticated dogs.

An alternate scientific name still in use is Canis lupus dingo. Lupus is Latin for ‘wolf’, reflecting the fact that the dingo is descended from wolves of SE Asia.

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WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?

Superficially dingoes resemble dogs: they are medium-sized carnivorous mammals with an average height of 44-63 cm (17 – 25 “) at the shoulder, and weighing 13- 23 kg (28 – 50 lb). Males are larger and heavier than females.

Their fur is typically ginger in colour, and most have white on the feet, the chest and the tip of the tail. However, less commonly, dingoes can also be sandy yellow, black and tan, cream or even white. Those living in the far north have a wiry, single coat whereas those in colder, southern and mountainous regions have a thick double coat. Unlike dogs, their fur is odourless. They have a bushy tail and small, erect ears.

They have a lean body; unlike dogs, their skull is the widest part of their anatomy. This ensures that if they squeeze their head into a narrow crevice or cavity, the rest of the body can follow.

Dingoes have longer, more slender canine teeth than dogs.

Their wrists and hips are more flexible than those of dogs, and they are more agile: they can jump, dig and climb trees and rocks with great alacrity! They can rotate their neck 180 degrees in any direction, something dogs are unable to do.

Fun Fact: Dingoes can run at 60 kph (37 mph) and  leap up to 2 metres high (6 ½ ft)!

WHERE DO THEY LIVE?

The most recent archaeological evidence indicates that dingoes have been in Australia for at least 3500 years, and possibly as long as 5000 years. It is likely that they were introduced by humans, possibly Asian seafarers. While the dingo is an introduced species, it has been in Australia long enough to become a functional part of the natural ecological system as a top-order predator; therefore it is regarded as a native animal.

Being extremely adaptable, dingoes initially spread throughout mainland Australia, occupying a wide variety of habitats, including alpine, woodland, grassland, coastal desert and tropics.

While ginger-coloured dingoes can be found throughout their range, those with sandy-yellow fur tend to be found along the coast. Sable and black-and-tan variations are most often found in forested areas, and white and cream coloured animals are typically found in alpine regions.

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In the mid-20th century a dingo fence was built to exclude dingoes from sheep-grazing areas in the fertile south-east part of the country. As a result, dingoes are now mostly absent from areas of New South Wales, Queensland, and the southern parts of South Australia and Victoria.

Fun Fact: The dingo fence is one of the longest structures in the world, stretching for   over 5600 km (~3500 miles).

A population of dingoes on K’gari (Fraser Island) has significant conservation value. Because they have rarely had the opportunity to interbreed with domestic dogs, they are amongst the most genetically pure dingoes in the world.

There have never been dingoes in Tasmania.

Closely related to the Australian dingo are the ‘singing dogs’ (Canis lupus hallstromi) of New Guinea.

WHAT DO THEY EAT?

Dingoes are generalist carnivores, which means their diet depends on whatever prey is available locally. A study by scientists from Deakin University found  that large and medium sized mammals were the main food items, followed by small mammals and rabbits, introduced hoofed mammals (such as feral deer, goats and sheep), birds and reptiles.

They also eat insects, crustaceans, centipedes, fish and frogs as well as carrion.

Predation on introduced pest species (deer, goats, rabbits, hares, black rats, house mice, foxes and cats) reduces the impact that these animals have on the survival of native species.

Fun Fact: Dingoes are the largest mammalian predator in Australia.

SOCIAL LIFE

Dingoes form stable social packs of 3 to 12 individuals. Within the pack, there is an alpha male and female breeding pair along with their offspring of varying ages, with males dominant over females throughout the pack.  Unlike domestic dogs, dingoes form long-term pair bonds, often mating for life.

They maintain a distinct territory within their home range; the size depends on the availability of resources—food and water.  Boundaries are delineated by scent markings, using urine, faeces and scent glands. Within this range they travel around 10 – 15 km per day.

They may be active any time of day, but are most active at dawn and dusk

Dingoes generally hunt alone, but members of the pack cooperate to hunt larger animals such as kangaroos.

Dingoes communicate using a range of vocalizations. Most common is the distinctive howl, used for long-range communication to attract pack members or to repel intruders from their home range. Packs often howl in chorus.

A silent snuff bark discretely warns others of danger. Other vocalizations include snuffing, growling, anxious whines and whimpering and a yelp of pain.

Fun Fact:  Contrary to popular belief, dingoes actually can bark! They do so rarely.  Their bark is sharp and abrupt, and is used to warn pack mates of a threat nearby.

BREEDING AND RAISING THE YOUNG

Females breed only once a year (unlike dogs which have 2 or more breeding cycles per year).

The onset of the breeding season is triggered by the decrease in daylight hours, generally between April and June. During this time pairs may actively defend their territory. Only the alpha pair in the pack is allowed to breed. If a subordinate female gives birth, the pups are killed by the alpha pair!

Females give birth in a well-hidden den. Most dens are built underground, but they have been observed in hollow logs, enlarged rabbit warrens, rock shelters, under large spinifex tussocks and at the base of trees. Dens are close to resources of food and water. There is a single opening, facing away from the rising and daytime sun.

The average gestation period is 63 days.  The average litter size is 4-5 pups, but up to 10 have been recorded. Pups are born with black fur across the muzzle that fades with age.

The dingo is a placental mammal. Pups are nourished only by mother’s milk until 2 weeks old. Both male and female pack members cooperatively care for the young. They help the mother introduce the pups to whole food, usually by gorging on a kill then returning to the den to regurgitate food to the pups. Later they will bring pieces of meat and let the pups play with them.

Pups start to venture outside the den at 3 weeks of age. By 8 weeks they are fully weaned and leave the den for good.

Females coach the pups on hunting behaviour in the vicinity of the den. By about 16 weeks pups are no longer reliant on parental care for survival. They may remain with the pack till the next breeding season.

Fun Fact: Dingoes develop physically and mentally much earlier than dogs—they can run and play at 3 weeks, and are fully mature at 12 months.

Most do not bear pups until 2 years of age.

Average lifespan in the wild is up to 10 years, but can be over 14 years in captivity. The longest known lifespan for a dingo is 18 years and 7 months!

CONSERVATION STATUS

The relationship between dingoes and humans is complex.

Dingoes are revered by Australia’s First Nations peoples. They feature in the Dreamtime and the Dreaming. Indigenous Australians brought dingo pups into their families to act as companions and guardians. They represent a vital connection to Country.

Before European settlement, dingo populations were stable, regulated by the availability of food and water and by the social structure of the pack, in which only the dominant pair of each pack was allowed to breed.

Development of pastoral properties required the building of year-round artificial water sources (artesian bores and stock dams) which led to increased populations of native prey mammals such as kangaroos. Rabbits were introduced and quickly became a major prey item. As a result of this explosion in the availability of food, the population of dingoes probably reached a peak between 1930 and the late 1950’s.

To protect livestock, dingoes have been persecuted on a massive scale ever since European settlement, with landholders pursuing inhumane eradication programmes, including poisoning with 1080 baits, trapping and shooting.

It is now widely accepted that the dingo plays an essential role as the apex predator in the Australian environment.

While they do prey opportunistically on cattle, sheep and goats, they also play a vital role in controlling populations of kangaroos and feral herbivores. Cattle graziers in Queensland who stopped culling dingoes recorded significant regeneration of native vegetation that had been over-grazed by kangaroos, feral goats and deer, or uprooted by feral pigs.

It has been shown that the dingo fence, built to exclude dingoes from across southeast Australia, presents a hazard to native terrestrial wildlife and disrupts ecosystems. Within the dingo fence, feral cats and foxes prey unchecked on small native mammals, leading to many extinctions of these species.

The Australian Dingo Foundation is working with graziers to develop non-lethal ways to protect livestock and co-exist with dingoes.  These include the use of guard dogs and donkeys, and more effective fencing of individual properties.

The dingo was listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) from 2004 until 2020, but recent changes in the preferred taxonomy led to their being reclassified as ‘Not Evaluated’.  Thus the dingo is the only Australian mammal not protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.

In Queensland dingoes are considered native wildlife but are protected only in national parks.

In 2023 the Girrungun Aboriginal Corporation of north Queensland hosted a National Inaugural First Nations Dingo Forum

Following two days of presentations and discussions, representatives from across Australia signed a declaration to government, asserting their right as traditional custodians to be involved in legislation and management of dingoes.

It is their hope that the declaration will lead to the formation of a First Nations National Steering Committee to develop best practice and ‘bring dingoes back to country’.

Let’s hope   that ecologists, graziers and First Nations people can all work together to find ways that dingoes and people can co-exist.

Preserving the dingoes’ ecological role is a key part of maintaining the long-term health and biodiversity of local ecosystems across mainland Australia.

DINGOES AT BILLABONG SANCTUARY

Over the years we have been home to a succession of wonderful dingoes, beginning with Todd and Judy, who were among our very first animals when the park opened in 1985.

From 2010 we cared for a pack of three dingoes- King, Kalari and Allira—who were crowd favourites on their daily walkabout through the park. They were important ambassadors for their species. Visitors could appreciate first-hand their lively intelligence and gain an understanding of issues affecting their conservation in the wild.

Following Allira’s death in November of 2023 we are completely renovating the dingo enclosure, with plans to introduce three young dingoes by mid-2024. We look forward to their arrival, and will post updates on this page and on our Facebook page.

Further Reading

Dingoes. Nature Australia. Summer 1995-96 .Vol 25 No 3. pp 46-55

The Dingo Debate: Origins, Behaviour and Conservation. Bradley Smith. 2015 CSIRO publishing

https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/arrival-of-the-dingo

https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Canis_lupus_dingo/

https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2014/04/dingo-declared-a-separate-species/

https://cosmosmagazine.com/nature/dingoes-are-not-wild-dogs/

https://www.science.org/content/article/how-did-dingo-get-australia

https://disruptr.deakin.edu.au/environment/whats-dingoes-favourite-food-frogs-insects-or-wombat-stew/

https://www.canids.org/species/view/WCD6DU963961

https://www.dingoden.net/facts.html

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-09/dingo-fence-map-ecology-farming-predator-sheep-extinction/101711608

https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2022/05/the-dog-fence-3/

Can dingoes increase graziers’ profits and help maintain Australia’s rangelands? Campbell G et al. (2022) The Rangeland Journal 44(3), 129–135. https://doi.org/10.1071/RJ22002

https://hsi.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/dingo-declaration-FINAL-A3.pdf

https://theconversation.com/killing-dingoes-is-the-only-way-to-protect-livestock-right-nope-200905

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