Monday, June 14, 2010

Creature Feature: Dingoes.

"Crikey! The dingo ate my baby!"

Does that sound familiar to you? It should. Dingoes have become almost as iconic of Australia as kangaroos, koalas, emus and spiders that can kill you in a single bite. The kicker here is that one of these things is not like the others. Can you guess which one?

Yep. The dingo is different from nearly every other poster animal of Australia. That's because it really shouldn't be there to begin with.

If you have ever studied the fauna down under obsessively, no doubt you noticed that there is no logical evolutionary progression towards a placental canid. There are carnivorous marsupials and a few stray herbivorous placental mammals (like those darn rabbits!), but those were introduced by humans.

Besides humans, the dingo is the only large placental mammal in Australia. To their credit, they came over with the Aborigines and not Europeans, but they are still not technically a native species. They can also still breed with domesticated dogs, which should be a pretty big hint that they are not part of the indigenous population. (Consequently, Australian environmentalists treat the dingo population as being under threat due to outbreeding.) Dingoes are still blamed for wiping out the thylacine (despite having a slightly different niche) and the Tasmanian Devil on the Australian mainland.

A lot of native species were killed off simply because humans came over with their dogs...which then got loose and started breeding on their own, messing with the ecosystem even more. Ultimately, this evened things out in Australia; one apex predator was removed, and another took its place. (New Zealand was not so lucky, but that is for another article.) Dingoes even keep other foreign populations, such as cattle and rabbits, in check.

So everything worked out ecologically. Good for the dingo. What about that baby-eating thing? What did Australia do to the domestic dog to give it such a horrible reputation?

Does this look like a face that would eat a baybee?

Australia, as stated above, is home to kangaroos that can kill you, snakes that can kill you, spiders that can kill you, and giant birds that can kill you. Even the cute, cuddly fairy penguins and wombats can do serious damage if they want to. That means, unlike most of the feral dogs you hear about, these dogs are designed to take care of badass prey that eats humans for breakfast. Furthermore, since they are descended from domestic ancestors, dingoes are unafraid of humans. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, no?

The little blue penguins are plotting your demise.

So, by extension, do dingoes really eat babies? After all, they are not native, and originated from the domestic dog. No way they can be that vicious!

Try and picture this eating a baby. I dare you.

Despite the huge pop culture myth that dingoes eat human spawn, the answer to this seems to be 'not usually.' The original report from the '80's about a dingo eating a baby is based largely on circumstantial, but convincing evidence; a child went missing, and a dingo was found near the campsite. Nobody has actually seen a dingo devour a baby. A later report mentions a dingo with a limp leg carrying a baby, but it is questionable. Since a limp was also reported in the original case, it may be that only injured dingoes go for sweet, sweet baby meat. Reports of child-eating have been greatly exaggerated.

This does not mean that you should share food or squeaky toys with dingoes; as a simple Google search will tell you, dingoes are only slightly more tame than wolves. Would you share those things with a wolf? How about a wolf that, thanks to its domestic breeding, has lost its fear of humans?

Didn't think so.

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