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Kelpies have no dingo genes

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Kelpie DNA study unravels mysterious origins of Australian working dog, but finds no dingo

Posted 51 minutes ago

The Australian kelpie's origins have long been shrouded in mystery, but new genetics research has found some vital answers to the iconic working dog's ancestry.

Key points:

  • Research has found no genetic link between dingoes and kelpies
  • Kelpies are as "helpful as a farmhand" and many farms would be lost without them
  • There's a fascination with the "iconic, spirited" Australian working dogs

A team of researchers at the University of Sydney looked at the similar characteristics shared by the kelpie and dingo — distinctive pricked up ears, similar body shape and coat colour.

Dog genetics expert Professor Claire Wade said despite the visual similarities, the study found no detectable dingo DNA in the working dog breed.

She said the research found the dingo connection was no more than bush folklore.

A close-up or a dingo standing on a beach on Fraser Island off south-east Queensland in 2001.
 
(AAP: Jim Shrimpton)

"While both the kelpie and the dingo have the up version of the ears, when you look closely at the DNA you can see that it's quite different," Professor Wade said.

"So it's very unlikely it would have come from the dingo."

Professor Wade's paper, published in the journal Genes, is the first peer-reviewed study of its kind to conclude that the domestic and wild dogs shared no detectable common DNA which could impact their coat colour or ear type.

Where did the dingo myth come from?

The kelpie, a herding dog derived from the Scottish collie or farm collie, was brought to Australia in the late 1800s from Scotland.

Dingoes, which are classed as a native species, were believed to have arrived in the country more than 4,000 years ago.

It was believed the original kelpie breed was developed by crossing the Scottish collie with the dingo when it first came to Australia, to make it more resilient to the harsh climate.

Professor Wade said details about early breeding were shrouded in secrecy.

"Originally there were meant to be some farm collies imported from Scotland, but it was quite secret and the person who imported them held them very closely and wouldn't share the breeding females with anybody," she said.

"But the fellow who became known as the first kelpie breeder [Jack Gleeson], managed to exchange a horse to get one of these collie offspring because they were meant to be extremely good working dogs.

"But at that point when one of the first litters was bred it had yellow puppies in it, all the others were black and brown, so people immediately presumed that these yellow ones had come from mating with a dingo."

Lady sitting on a bench with arms around two kelpies
 
(Supplied: University of Sydney)

Other studies have been inconclusive

Former champion shearer and author Bill Robertson investigated the origins of working dog breed in his book Origins of the Australian Kelpie - Exposing the Myths and Fabrications from the Past.

In his book, Mr Robertson said the infusion of dingo genes began at Warrock Station in Victoria in the late 1870s, when a dingo was bred with a collie.

He believed that was kept secret at the time because of punitive fines imposed on anyone who kept a dingo-cross at the time.

The University of New South Wales carried out tests to investigate the theory but was unable to determine the timeframe if, and when, dingo genes were possibly introduced to the kelpie breed.

Kelpies: A Dash of Dingo

 

Professor Wade said the Working Kelpie Council of Australia had indicated that "might have been tried but it was never successful".

"I think it's much more likely that the dingo had kelpie in it, than the kelpie had dingo in it.

"Apparently in the old days when people would abandon their farms, they would just leave the dogs behind.

"And so sometimes they got integrated into the dingo populations, which is why our dingos are now very intermingled with domestic dogs."

Working dog genes

 

The kelpie samples in the research — funded by the Australian Research Council, AgriFutures and the Working Kelpie Council — were part of a larger genetic project helping breeders produce the best possible working dogs.

Professor Wade said a lack of fear or anxiousness and intelligence were the two most influential factors of a great working dog.

"So those are the two areas we're concentrating our research in now, is to understand the genes that are involved in fear and intelligence."

Professor Wade said the main aim of the project was to connect farmers with breeders who produced working dogs with the attributes required for specific tasks.

"A kelpie is basically worth pretty much a farmhand in terms of the work they help you accomplish, and a lot of farms are lost without them."

Australia's two types of kelpies — the working and conformational dogs — each have different purposes and characteristics.

Professor Wade said there could even be an opportunity in the future for researchers to help farmers find suitable mates to meet their needs and breeding animals.

"A dog that has to go and work on its own to muster sheep on the farm, that skill set is quite different than a kelpie that's used for working in the saleyards and working with cattle is quite different than working with sheep."

Professor Wade said the fascination with the Australian kelpie breed was not surprising, particularly with its infiltration in pop culture and movies such as Red Dog.

"They represent iconic Australia.

"They work with us so well and contribute so much to our lives as pets but also our economy as well," she said.

"They're tough, resilient little dogs, they've got a lot of spirit."

 

https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2019-06-28/kelpie-study-finds-no-detectable-dingo-dna/11250106

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