Thursday, March 08, 2012

There was a boy who had a dog . . .

. . . and dingo was its name-o.

And maybe the first dog a boy ever had, if an article by James Gorman and Christine Kenneally has correctly passed along the recent scientific findings, for in "Australia's Changing View of the Dingo" (New York Times, March 5, 2012), they write:
Dingoes are generally classified as a subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus dingo, although in the past they have been classified as a subspecies of dog and as a separate species. Physically, they resemble a generic, medium-size dog, about 40 pounds, usually tan-colored, with pricked ears and a bushy tail.

They do not have some of the physical signs of domestication found in many dog breeds, like barking as adults. They breed once a year, like wolves, and when undisturbed they have a stable pack structure topped by one male-female pair, the only ones in the pack that reproduce.

Bradley Smith, a research associate in public health at Flinders University in Adelaide who has studied dingoes, said by e-mail that experimental tests put dingoes closer to wolves in the kind of intelligence they display. "Both dingoes and wolves, being highly effective predators, are great at problem solving, working well in groups, and independent problem solving," he said.

But they also understand humans in a way that wolves do not. They get it when a person points at something, while wolves are clueless or supremely uninterested. Dingoes are not as good as dogs, however, at following a human's gaze.

Dingoes, Dr. Smith wrote, "seem to be a prime example of one of the first types of 'dogs'. Not domestic dogs as we know them now, but some form of early dog that made it easier for the human-canid relationship to develop. You could almost say dingoes are frozen in time -- as they have made a very good home in Australia and have been isolated for many thousands of years."

Maybe the first dog a boy ever had, sure, but the dog might instead have had the boy if dingos are as predacious as implied, for the article also tells of attacks on humans.

The point about mating is interesting because I didn't know this fact about wolves either, but I see from checking the fact that reality is a bit more complex and that cases exist in which wolves other than the top couple also mate, possibly when conditions are favorable for growth of the pack, for example, abundant food supply. I infer the same would be true for the dingo pack.

As for wolf intelligence, I'd need to read more on that to see if wolves are better "at problem solving, working well in groups, and independent problem solving," which seems implied by Smith's statement. Dogs seem pretty good at these things, too, even though they are domesticated. In fact, humans expect a lot of brainwork by domesticated dogs, including the ability to 'read' human intentions. Granted, wolves' brains are slightly larger than dogs' brains, but brain size alone is inconclusive of higher intelligence since brain organization matters a great deal.

One question remaining for me is that if the dingos weren't domesticated, why are they better at 'reading' humans' intentions than wolves? I recall learning that dogs might have developed through some species of wolves hanging around human camps in prehistoric times, univited guests who found an advantage in staying close even while remaining 'wild'. They would need to avoid close contact to escape being eaten, so I suspect that only those wolves that could perceive the danger when humans pointed would tend to survive and pass on their genes. That ability to understand pointing would prove useful when humans did begin to domesticate the wolves and turn them into dogs.

This is, of course, sheer speculation on my part, and another possibility is that as wolves were being domesticated, some might have mated with still wild wolves lingering around human camps and thereby passed along the ability to read human intentions . . . except that the typical mating pattern of wolf packs would seem to make this unlikely.

As admitted, sheer speculation, but if any knowledgeable readers care to share what they know . . .



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