The dingo is not a wild dog but its own distinct species, according to a new study published in the Journal of Zoology.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Sydney resurrected the species name "Canis dingo" to label the distinctly Australian animal, described in the study as a four-legged mammal with a slim build, broad head, long snout, pointy ears and bushy tail.
"What we've done is describe the dingo more scientifically," Mike Letnic of the University of New South Wales told Reuters.
Scientists came to the conclusion after isolating dingoes unlikely to have crossbred with domestic dogs. They did so by examining 69 skull and skin specimens of dingoes from more than a century ago from both museums and archeological sites.
"What we did was say this is what dingoes look like before 1900 and that's what a dingo looks like because there were not very many dogs around," Letnic said. "That's where the benchmark comes in."
The findings also dispelled common misconceptions about Australia’s largest land predator.
“Many Australians like to think that dingoes are always yellow and that animals with any other coloration are not dingoes. This is untrue,” Letnic said. “One of our insights is that coat color does not define an animal as a dingo, dog or a hybrid. We found that dingoes can be tan, dark, black and tan, white, or can have the sable coloration typical of German Shepherd dogs.”
Dingoes came to Australia about 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. Genetic evidence suggests they evolved from Eastern Asian domestic dogs. They bred in isolation until European settlers introduced their dogs around 1788.
In the wild, dingoes play a crucial role in regulating the populations of kangaroos, wallabies and invasive red foxes. The new classification may help conservation efforts, some animal advocates say.
"We've always been told that the animal, because it's just not part of the Australian scene really, that's it's just another add-on and it really doesn't have an awful lot of importance," Malcolm Kilpatrick from Save Fraser Island Dingoes told the Australian Broadcast Corporation. "It's just made that animal, which in a lot of areas is recognised as being the purest strain of dingoes in Australia due to its isolated nature, that's just lifted its importance up pretty much sky-high."