Mysterious Singing Dogs Emerge From Extinction After 50 Years

The discovery may help with human vocalization research.

Highland wild dog photographed in Indonesia
Highland wild dog photographed in Indonesia.

 New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation

New Guinea singing dogs are known for their distinctive haunting wails. Once plentiful throughout the island, now only 200 to 300 of them remain in zoos and sanctuaries around the world. Descendants of a few wild dogs that were captured in the 1970s, those captive animals are the result of years of inbreeding because the gene pool is so small.

The dogs were thought to be extinct in the wild for 50 years but a new study suggests that the ancestral dog population still thrives. Highland wild dogs living near the world's largest gold mine in New Guinea's highlands may be the same animal. If confirmed, the discovery can help with species conservation efforts.

"Determining if the highland wild dog was in fact the New Guinea singing dog or its forerunner would be a mechanism for conservation biologists to restore some of the genetic variation lost in the conservation populations," study co-author Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist at the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, tells Treehugger.

The results of the study were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers had heard about similarly elusive highland wild dogs that had the same look and vocalizations of the New Guinea singing dogs. On his first trip to the area, field biologist James MacIntyre was able to get photographs and fecal samples from more than a dozen wild dogs. On his second expedition, he was able to trap three dogs and get blood samples.

He sent the samples to Ostrander and her team to extract the DNA and perform nuclear genetic testing. They found that the highland wild dogs and New Guinea singing dogs had extremely similar genome sequences.

"We found, first, that the closest relative of the highland wild dogs were the conservation populations of New Guinea singing dogs along with dingoes. In fact, the dingo, highland wild dog and New Guinea singing dog from conservation populations ended up together on the same 'branch' when we compared all their DNA to that of hundreds of domestic breeds, wild canids, and other dog populations," Ostrander says.

"We found second, that the branch of the tree with these three dogs split very early from the trunk of the tree that produced branches leading to modern western European dogs. Finally, we found that the highland wild dog, while containing most of the nuclear variation found in the captive New Guinea singing dog population, also contained extra. This is likely due to one a couple of things, with the most interesting being that it defines the original New Guinea singing dog, which makes it critical as the population for help in restoring the original dogs."

The Same, But Different

The researchers believe the New Guinea singing dogs and the highland wild dogs are the same even though don't have identical genomes. They credit the differences to the fact that the two populations have been physically separated for so long and because of the inbreeding among the captive New Guinea singing dogs.

They say that the genomic similarities indicate that the highland wild dogs are the wild and original New Guinea singing dog population and, despite the different names, they are actually the same breed.

"The results are important because, first and foremost, they establish that New Guinea singing dogs are not, as thought, extinct in the wild," Ostrander points out.

"This is the first study of highland wild dogs done using nuclear DNA, the gold standard for studies like this, which makes it quite special. The study also fills in some missing blanks in understanding the complex relationship between highland wild dogs, dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs in conservation centers. Finally, the results of the study provide a means for conservation biologists to move forward with additional studies and as they think about how to restore the variation in the New Guinea singing dog conservation population."

The researchers plan to study the singing dogs to learn more about how their genes affect vocalization. Because humans are more closely related to dogs than birds, understanding vocalization could help lead to human treatments when issues occur, they say.

And if you haven't heard a New Guinea singing dog, Ostrander suggests it's worth a listen.

"It is a pleasing harmonic sound," she says. "It’s not like other dogs sounds—not a howl or a yip or a bark. It is really a lovely harmonic and haunting vocalization."