Sing With Me

Singing dog ancestors prove how humans influence evolution

A new genetic analysis reveals these crooning canines may not be extinct after all.

YouTube/Silver Cross Fox

They are the crooners of the canine world.

With their unique ability to sing, letting out long, loud, tonal sounds, New Guinea singing dogs are a fascinating tribute to evolution — and to human-animal relationships.

These elusive wild dogs were thought to be nearly extinct, but a new study of their close relatives, highland wild dogs, suggests their unique legacy may live on. In a genetic analysis, researchers offer us new insights into how we might restore singing dog populations in the wild, and sheds light on the origins of vocalization.

Highlands wild dogs' genes are strikingly similar to those of New Guinea singing dogs, according to the new study.

The research was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The last time singing dogs were seen in nature was in the 1970s. For decades, scientists believed the dogs were probably extinct in the wild, now living only in captivity. But that theory is upended by the new highland wild dog findings.

The highland wild dog, it turns out, is a living ancestor to the singing dog.

It is also super cute:

Highland wild dog.Anang Dianto

New Guinea singing dogs are particularly fascinating for scientists because of their relationship with humans.

The New Guinea singing dog's origin story is intertwined with humans — the breed was "basically created by people," senior study author Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.

Eight dogs were brought to the United States from the highlands of New Guinea, Ostrander explained, "and bred with each other to create this group."

Before the new study, researchers had a hunch that highland wild dogs may be the predecessors of the New Guinea singing dog. The new genomic analysis locks in that theory. The two dogs have unusually similar genome sequences — closer than any other in the dog family.

A highland wild dog in Indonesia. New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation

In fact, the only reason the dogs aren't identical is because they were physically separated for decades, and because captive dogs were inbred, the researchers say. They are essentially the same breed — which means the original population of New Guinea singing dogs aren't extinct in the wild after all.

The new findings can help conservation biologists preserve both breeds, researchers say.

By breeding the two, they can bolster populations of New Guinea singing dogs. That will, in turn, also help to preserve the original breed.

Perfect pitch — New Guinea singing dogs let out something of a melodic howl when they "sing."

Here's a video of them taking it away at the San Diego Zoo:

The ancient breed teaches us an important lesson about evolution, and how humans are able to influence it, the researchers say.

In just a few decades, genetic differences were clear between the two dogs, despite them coming from the same original breed.

The findings also help to understand the history of vocalization in dogs, expanding our understanding of animals that vocalize, including humans.

"By getting to know these ancient, proto-dogs more, we will learn new facts about modern dog breeds and the history of dog domestication," Ostrander said. "After all, so much of what we learn about dogs reflects back on humans."

Abstract: New Guinea singing dogs (NGSD) are identifiable by their namesake vocalizations, which are unlike any other canid population. Their novel behaviors and potential singular origin during dog domestication make them an attractive, but elusive, subject for evolutionary and conservation study. Although once plentiful on the island of New Guinea (NG), they were presumed to currently exist only in captivity. This conclusion was based on the lack of sightings in the lowlands of the island and the concurrent expansion of European- and Asian-derived dogs. We have analyzed the first nuclear genomes from a canid population discovered during a recent expedition to the highlands of NG. The extreme altitude (>4,000 m) of the highland wild dogs’ (HWD) observed range and confirmed vocalizations indicate their potential to be a wild NGSD population. Comparison of single-nucleotide polymorphism genotypes shows strong similarity between HWD and the homogeneous captive NGSD, with the HWD showing significantly higher genetic diversity. Admixture analyses and estimation of shared haplotypes with phylogenetically diverse populations also indicates the HWD is a novel population within the distinct evolutionary lineage of Oceanic canids. Taken together, these data indicate the HWD possesses a distinct potential to aid in the conservation of NGSD both in the wild and under human care.
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