“These dogs weren’t domesticated in the sense that we think about,” Cairns says. “They weren’t like a pet Labrador, and humans weren’t breeding them or controlling which ones bred. Dingoes are probably what dogs would have looked like before humans started messing with them.”
James McIntyre, the director of the Southwest Pacific Research Project, is one of the very few scientists ever to have studied the New Guinea highland wild dog, a descendant of those canids that first arrived in Papua New Guinea and a close relative of the Australian dingo.
“No matter how you try to raise them, they’re very predatory. Even if you get them as puppies, their instincts kick in as they become adults,” he says.
Both dingoes and highland dogs returned to a wild state after their initial sojourn with humans. In Australia, dingoes emerged as the continent’s mammalian apex predator. Though dingoes are admired and revered by many Aboriginal peoples, European settlers took a much grimmer view of them, instituting eradication campaigns and erecting a dingo-proof fence across thousands of kilometers of the harsh outback starting in the early 1900s.
“Australia is now culturally very intolerant of dingoes,” says Mike Letnic, an ecologist focusing on conservation and wildlife management at UNSW. “There’s a deep sense of antipathy in most cases.”
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As a young boy, Newsome traveled around Australia with his ecologist father, who also studied dingoes. After graduating from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in ecology, Newsome moved to Alice Springs in Central Australia to work as an environmental consultant. There, he began hearing stories about dingoes clustering around mine sites in the Tanami Desert. Greater human encroachment into previously pristine wilderness had increased contact and conflict between people and wildlife, and Newsome wanted to understand how this played out. Dingoes, he says, made a natural starting point.
One of the most isolated deserts on Earth, the Tanami sits at the sparsely populated western edge of the Northern Territory and is home to the most genetically pure population of wild dingoes. Newsome’s work documented a group of around 100 of the animals that lived alongside the mining settlement, eating from the dump site, which had enough scraps to feed up to 225 dingoes each day. One hundred kilometers away, in the much more sparsely populated outback, Newsome studied completely wild dingoes that had minimal contact with humans.
The first difference he noticed was in size. The human-habituated dingoes were 20 percent larger than their wild counterparts, thanks to the nutrient-dense leftovers they found around the mine.
Other variations began to stand out, too. A 2014 study in the Journal of Mammalogy analyzed the diets of dingoes and free-roaming domestic dogs using scat samples. Newsome and his colleagues showed that, nutritionally, the dingoes at the mine site ate as well as domestic dogs, and markedly differently from the wild dingoes. A follow-up study revealed that the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Tanami Desert mine site altered the dingoes’ social behavior, too: Their home ranges were smaller while their group size was larger, which Newsome attributes to the ready availability of nutrient-dense food.