Pelage variation in dingoes across southeastern Australia: implications for conservation and management.
How to manage hybridization and introgression in wild animals is controversial. Wildlife managers and researchers may often rely upon phenotypic variables such as coat colour to inform on ground management decisions. In Australia, dingoes are typically believed to be ginger in colour, and unusual coat colours such as brindle or sable are widely posited to be evidence of contemporary domestic dog hybridization. We carried out microsatellite-based genotyping on 1325 wild canids from southeastern Australia of known coat colour to estimate the extent of domestic dog introgression. A key aim of our study was to examine the relationship between coat colour and ancestry in wild dingoes. We observed that 27.4% of our samples were dingoes with no evidence of domestic dog ancestry whilst 72.6% were dingoes with some domestic dog ancestry. Our data confirm that feral dogs, domestic dogs with no dingo ancestry, are rare in the wild, representing less than 1.5% of the population. There was no coat colour that could distinguish dingoes with or without dog ancestry from each other. Contrary to popular belief, colours such as brindle and patchy were positively associated with dingoes with no dog ancestry and were less common in dingoes of mixed ancestry. A key finding of this work is that coat colour should not be used to assess ancestry in dingoes. Further research is needed to uncover the antiquity, origin and potential adaptive value of these genomic regions. It is possible that this is a similar example of adaptive introgression as has been observed in North American wolves with black coat colour. These data add perspective to global debates about how to manage and conserve enigmatic animal populations in the presence of modern or historical introgression.