Behavioural changes of the dingo (Canis dingo) after hybridisation with the feral dog (Canis familiaris) (#680)
The dingo is Australia's largest terrestrial predator; acting as an apex predator in the majority of ecosystems in which it is found. It is an important trophic regulator, usually feeding on small native rodents and medium sized macropods. Dingoes, in general, tend to exist in small packs of 3-12 individuals which they self-regulate through the exclusion of members and outsiders.
These normal behaviours change, however, when the dingo hybridises with free ranging feral domesticated dogs. With high densities of feral dogs spreading from population centres dingo populations frequently hybridise with feral dogs, adopting their behavioural tendencies in the process. Packs cease to self-regulate in size, often increasing in number exponentially. This increase in predator density leads to trophic cascading and eventually ecosystem collapse. Furthermore hybrid packs are bolder around human settlements, lack hierarchical systems and are far more likely to hunt livestock; damaging the livelihood of rural communities. In some areas of the country hybridisation has reached catastrophic levels; it is estimated that only 17% of wild dogs in Victoria could still be classified as dingoes.
Due to the evolutionary plasticity of canines - both behaviourally and physically - distinguishing dingoes, hybrids and feral dogs from one another is the subject of much debate. Skull morphologies, microsatellites and coat colouration have all been assessed but there is room for debate in all methods discovered so far. It is vitally important that a system be found. Dingoes are an important part of Australian ecosystems but the behavioural shifts that come with hybridisation could cause irreparable widespread ecological damage.