Monday, February 27, 2012

DINGO: Downright INGenious Organisms

A woman takes her two 'ferocious' dogs, a Tibetan Mastiff mutt and an American Pit Bull Terrier, for a walk in the late afternoon.  Although her dogs are loving and devoted to their master, they can be a bit unruly on the leash.  Especially when they catch a whiff of an unknown dog and see it heading their way.  The party comes upon a man with a golden pooch and recognize the dog as an Australian dingo.  Now the mutt and the pit bull are really getting excited (yes, pit bulls are just as strong as you think and do you know how big a mastiff is?) so they start to pull, bark and growl in attempt to greet the man and his dingo.  It turns out this man is a bit of a jerk and instead of cheerfully hustling past his trail-mates he starts yelling at the woman, "Can't you handle your dogs?  Don't own big dogs if you can't control them!".  Mind you the woman still has a solid hold on both leashes but is struggling to keep her dogs in one spot.  The distance between the dogs shortens and the three of them briefly meet; no harmful actions take place.  In fact, after a few sniffs of the dingos behind the pit bull's tail breaks into a happy wag.  But as I already mentioned this guy is pretty low, so he hurries his dog past the other two and shouts back at the woman, "My dog could rip your dogs apart!".

And this is what I think of when I hear the word dingo.  But beside the warning at the end, this story doesn't give much information on the Australian canine.  Because I am eager to connect to a different story when I hear the word dingo (and because I'm curious if they could really rip my family's dogs apart) I've done a little research on these 'wolf-dogs'.  It turns out that dingos are pretty sharp, both when it comes to problem solving as well as incisors.

All rights reserved to Bradley Smith

A recent study published in Behavioural Processes illustrates the dingo's ability to use tools to get something of value.  Yes tools.  The use of tools has previously been contained to few animals with high cognitive ability, such as monkeys, dolphins and certain birds (oh yes, and humans!).  But this limited range can now be extended to Canis lupus dingo of the canidae family.

The above study developed from an honest attempt to solve a mystery: name-tags were disappearing from dingo enclosures at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre and people wanted to know why.  No one saw the dingos make any attempt to remove the name-tags when people were around.  And even if they made the attempt the name-tags were 5.5 feet off the ground, well above the average dingos vertical.  But still, name-tags were disappearing so the researchers put up a video camera to tape the dingos actions when no one was around.  Sure enough, they found a certain dingo named Sterling to be the culprit.

It's true that Sterling could not jump high enough to get the name-tags.  What he did was trade brawn for brain by managing to utilize the height of a nearby table.  Sterling was able to drag the table close to where the name-tags were on the fence, hop up on it, learn onto the fence and stretch up to snatch the names-tags!  Check out the video to see just how he does it.

Courtesy of "Tool use by Sterling the dingo" on YouTube

Now that's a clever dingo!  This is the first documented example of a member of the canidae family (including wolves, coyotes, foxes and domesticated dogs) spontaneously using tools, without any training on how to use them.  Neither of the dingos closest relatives, domesticated dogs and wolves, have displayed the the ability to use tools.  Dogs are particularly good at responding to humans attention, which has given them the catchphrase of "man's best friend", and wolves show sophisticated social hunting strategies but neither has been documented to use tools before.

So dingos are pretty bright!  Perhaps ingenious is going a bit too far but it makes for a nice title.

As to whether or not they could take down a Tibetan mastiff and a pit bull I'm not sure, and actually, I hope never to find out.  Luckily, I don't think I even have the chance to find out because after the first encounter the dingo was never spotted again.  This either means that the he escaped to join up with a coyote pack and breed a ferocious new kind of canidae (look out!) or that his proud owner doesn't want to be bothered by other big dogs.  My guess is the latter.

That being said, people (mostly Australians and Australian tourists) should know that undomesticated dingos are wild animals and should be treated as such.  But with the proper training many proud dingo owners insist that they can make excellent pets.  Given the nature of their intellect, I would take this statement to be truthful.

*Story adapted from "Dingoes Ate My Nametag: Tool use in a dingo" post in Scientific American


  1. Are there any plans to see what else this particular dingo can do? Or at least give him some new toys to play with to keep himself (and everyone watching on video) entertained? Does anybody do MRIs on dogs?

    And in other dingo related news...

  2. I'm sure about the MRI question but I'm sure the folks at the dingo research center are putting Sterling in all sorts of new scenarios!

    As for the other news, it's a very sad story...