At between 10 and 24 kilograms, dingos are a little smaller than wolves of the northern hemisphere and have a lean, athletic build. They stand between 44 and 63 cm high at the shoulder, and the head-body length varies between 86 and 122 cm. Color varies but is usually ginger: some have a reddish tinge, others are more sandy yellow, and some are even black; the underside is lighter. Alpine dingos are completely white, and are found in high elevation areas of the Australian Alps. Most dingos have white markings on the chest, feet, and the tip of the tail; some have a blackish muzzle.
Unlike the domestic dog, dingos breed only once a year, generally do not bark, and have erect ears. They have a more independent temperament than domestic dogs, and the skull is distinctive, with a narrower muzzle, larger auditory bullae, larger canine teeth, and a domed head. They are extremely agile and are known to climb trees.
Wild dingos prey on a variety of animals, mostly small or medium-sized, but also larger herbivores at need. They are opportunistic carnivores, taking prey ranging in size from lizards and small rodents up to sheep and kangaroos.
Dingos do not generally form packs; they more often travel in pairs or small family groups. However, they are capable of forming larger packs to hunt cooperatively. While dingo groups use defined home territories, these territories can overlap with those of other groups.
Domestication is possible only if the dingos are taken into captivity as young pups.
Aboriginal people across the continent adopted the dingo as a companion animal, using it to assist with hunting and for warmth on cold nights.
When European settlers first arrived in Australia, dingos were tolerated, even welcomed at times. That changed rapidly when sheep became an important part of the white economy. Dingos were trapped, shot on sight, and poisoned—often regardless of whether they were truly wild or belonged to Aboriginal people. In the 1880s, construction of the great Dingo Fence began. The Dingo Fence was designed to keep dingos out of the relatively fertile south-east part of the continent (where they had largely been exterminated) and protect the sheep flocks of southern Queensland. It would eventually stretch 8500 kilometers; from near Toowoomba through thousands of miles of arid country to the Great Australian Bight and be (at that time) the longest man-made structure in the world. It was only partly successful: dingos can still be found in parts of the southern states to this day, and although the fence helped reduce losses of sheep to predators, this was counterbalanced by increased pasture competition from rabbits and kangaroos.
Dingos have received bad publicity in recent years as a result of the highly publicized Azaria Chamberlain disappearance and also because of dingo attacks on Fraser Island in Queensland.
The earliest known dingo skulls have been found in Vietnam and are about 5,500 years old. Dingo remains from 5,000 to 2,500 years old have been found in other parts of South-east Asia, and the earliest fossil record of dingos in Australia is 3,500 years old. Very dingo-like bones have also been found in Israel and the West Bank dating 14,000 years old. The ultimate origin of the dingo is uncertain, but it is possibly related to the wolves of south-west Asia, and probably arose in that area at about the same time as humans began to develop agriculture. Current thinking suggests that modern dogs are a mixture of several separate domestications of wolves at different times and in different areas: the modern dingo appears to be a relatively pure-bred descendant of one of the earliest domestications. It is probable that 14,000 year-old dingo-like bones found in Israel, and 9,000 year-old bones in the Americas are evidence of the commensal relationships that developed between wolves and people—as people migrated eastward, semi-domesticated dogs came with them. The Carolina dog, often dubbed "American Dingo", shows anatomical and comportmental similarities with the dingo, and potential genetic links are being investigated at the University of South Carolina.
Dingos did not arrive in Australia as companions of the original Aborigines until around 50,000 years ago, but were probably brought by Austronesian traders much later. A study of dingo mitochondrial DNA published in 2004 places their arrival at around 3000 BC, and suggests that only one small group may be the ancestors of all modern Australian dingos.
The dingo spread rapidly across Australia, probably with human assistance, and is thought to have occupied the entire continent within a short time. The full extent of the ecological change brought about by the introduction of the dingo remains unknown, but the dingo has been suspected to be the cause of a series of extinctions, notably of marsupial carnivores, including the last remaining large predator, the Thylacine, though this particular extinction is in doubt. It is thought that the co-operative pack behavior of dingos gave them an important competitive advantage over the more solitary marsupial carnivores, particularly during Australia's frequent droughts (when game becomes scarce).
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