By John Upton
Australia’s legal system exonerated Lindy Chamberlain of infanticide this week, again, 32 years after a dingo ran off with her baby. A basis of the prosecution was always the notion that dingoes don’t eat babies. Ergo, prosecutors argued, the mother’s nightmare story was fabricated to cover up her own hideous deed while camping at Uluru.
Perhaps Chamberlain’s legal nightmare could have been avoided if the powers that be had listened more closely to the Pitjantjatjara people. The traditional stewards of the land where two-month old Azaria was hunted down know dingoes well. They reportedly never doubted that a dingo was capable of such ferocity. Similar attacks since have shown they were right.
The seclusive canines remain a mystery to most people. Scientists cannot even agree on whether the predators should be considered a native species in Australia. That’s because they were introduced several thousand years ago by seafarers sweeping south through Asia.
Those who argue that dingoes are a native species point out that they have struck an ecological balance with the environment.
University of New South Wales researchers set up a test they thought would reveal whether dingoes should be considered native. They monitored the activity of rabbit-like bandicoots in suburban backyards, some of which were home to pet dogs and some of which were not. Because the nocturnal bandicoots avoided yards that contained dogs during the day, they concluded that the creatures have evolved to instinctively identify the threat posed by dogs through thousands of years of dingo interactions. That suggests to them that dingoes have become a native species.
“The logical criterion for determining native status of a long-term alien species must be once its native enemies are no longer naïve,” the scientists, Alexandra Carthey and Peter Banks, wrote in a January paper published in the journal PLoS ONE. “Our study suggests that these bandicoots may no longer be naïve towards dogs.”
On the other hand, the foreign and invasive nature of the species in Australia is also clear.
When dingoes arrived, they did what invasive predators do best: They chewed through the wildlife and condemned native species to extinction. Their arrival coincided with the extirpation from mainland Australia of the thylacine, a dog-like predator that’s better known as the Tasmanian Tiger. The species survived in Tasmania, an island that remained inaccessible to the dingoes, until the 20th century when the last sad specimen died in a zoo.
Thylacines were Australia’s largest predators until the dingoes arrived. Recent research by scientists at the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney revealed that the female thylacines of mainland Australia were considerably smaller than the dingos, making them vulnerable to direct predation by the continent crashers.
The dueling species also differed in a way that highlights dingoes’ alienness. Like almost all other native Australian mammals, thylacines were marsupials. (The other native Australian mammals are monotremes — egg-laying echidnas and platypuses.) Marsupials give birth shortly after conception and rear their young on a teat in a pouch. Dingoes, on the other hand, are placental mammals. If dingoes are to be considered a native species, then they are the continent’s only native placental mammal.
Dingoes can be found nowhere in the world other than in Australia. They have evolved into a distinct subspecies of the grey wolf, although that distinction is blurred by interbreeding with pet and feral dogs brought by more recent European settlement.
So if dingoes aren’t native to Australia, then they can be considered native to nowhere. They are either a native Australian species or a homeless wolf on a milleniums-long walkabout.
Either of which sounds like an appropriate description to me.