Scientists Rediscover Rare ‘Singing’ Dogs Thought to Have Gone Extinct

New Guinea "singing" dogs were thought to have gone extinct in the wild. But new research has located an “ancestral dog population” on the Indonesian island.
September 1, 2020, 12:25pm
singing dog
Still from a video shows a female New Guinea singing dog at the San Diego Zoo in 2009. Photo: Screenshot/YouTube/Silver Cross Fox

A rare “singing” dog native to New Guinea was rediscovered in the wild after scientists had believed the breed had gone extinct for over 50 years.

The breed—known for its unique vocalizations similar to the song of the humpback whale—was first studied in 1897.

There are only between 200 to 300 singing dogs in captivity in conservation centers around the world and none of them have seen the wild since the 1970s.

But in 2016, a team of scientists launched an expedition in the highlands of New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world, and located an “ancestral dog population” that still wandered the Indonesian province.

According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) on Monday, August 31, scientists were able to track a pack of highland wild dogs living near the Grasburg Mine in the Papua province of Indonesia, which allowed them to closely study the canines.

According to the study, researchers collected fecal samples and photographs of the highland wild dogs, which resembled the extinct “singing” breed that has since lost its genetic diversity due to inbreeding while in captivity.

In 2018, researchers returned to New Guinea, this time collecting blood samples from three of the 15 highland wild dogs discovered there, which allowed them to compare the DNA from the captive “singing” dogs to the highland wild dogs.

Dr. Heidi Parker, a staff scientist at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), led an analysis of the genetic sequences between both breeds and discovered striking similarities.

"We found that New Guinea singing dogs and the highland wild dogs have very similar genome sequences, much closer to each other than to any other canid known,” Parker wrote in a news release published by the National Institutes of Health.

“In the tree of life, this makes them much more related to each other than modern breeds such as German shepherds or basset hounds," she added.

Researchers say that due to inbreeding in captivity and because both breeds were separated for several decades, the “singing” dog and the highland wild dog have no identical genomes. But this does not mean that they are different breeds.

"The New Guinea ‘singing’ dog that we know of today is a breed that was basically created by people," Dr.  Elaine Ostrander, a distinguished investigator for the National Institutes of Health and senior author of the study, wrote. "Eight were brought to the United States from the highlands of New Guinea and bred with each other to create this group."

Researchers believe the finding will open doors to protecting the ancient breed and will let them learn more about human vocalization since humans are biologically closer to dogs than birds.