My rating: 3 of 5 stars ★★★
The Dingo in Australia and Asia was interesting to read, and is very difficult to rate. There are aspects of the book I would like to give 5 stars, and other aspects I want to give minus 5 stars.
Trigger warning: this review is probably a boring read for anyone who is not interested in learning about dingoes or considering to read the book, or who is already well into the topic, because it is very thorough. It is the first time I review a popular science book*. I’ll eventually find out how to do it shorter.
Good stuff: dingoes and their role in Australian ecology
The Dingo in Australia and Asia offers a wealth of information from studies of wild and captive dingoes in different regions of Australia and covers a wide range of topics centred around dingoes.
I liked the parts about vocal communication (howling patterns), predator-prey interactions and population dynamics, which give insights into dingoes’ communication systems and how wild animal populations regulate each other.
Another good aspect of the book is the glimpse into the tremendous role of the European invasion and the rabbit introduction in shaping the Australian fauna and landscape as it is today, where rabbits are a main food item on the menu of probably all the larger predators.
There is also a fascinating little glimpse into the childhood history of a litter of wild dingo pups on page 93 – 97 (with a sad ending though).
The layout of the book is excellent, with pleasant type and set-up, illustrations (colour photos, drawings, tables, graphs), quite smooth page texture and best of all: good wide margins to write notes in.
Interesting: dispersal sinks
An interesting aspect is how human control activities to remove dingoes impact dingo populations, and not always with the intended effect.
Eradication of dingoes by human control methods creates “dispersal sinks”: vacant territories that attract new dingoes from surrounding areas, when they disperse from their natal packs. Thus, these areas ‘suck’ in dingoes from surrounding areas in a continuous flow, like a sink.
Also, the killing of dingoes tends to fragment large stable family packs into smaller units. Dingoes, like wolves, have a one-litter-per-pack-per-year ‘policy’, so larger numbers of small packs rather than fewer, larger packs result in more breeding dingoes and thereby a net result of more dingoes being produced overall, and thereby the need to kill more dingoes to keep numbers down.
So therefore human control activities to reduce dingo numbers can sometimes increase dingo numbers.
Slightly annoying drawbacks include messy categories at times, some factual inaccuracies (e.g. rabies-free countries in the world, p. 28 – super easy to look up online), and not explaining how he arrives on some conclusions, so it is sometimes unclear whether an opinion of his is speculation.
Moderately frustrating drawbacks include lack of references and in one case (at least) doubtful references. For example on p. 133, it says “In a study of captive wolves… […]”, and the next paragraph starts with: “Other studies of captive wolves have suggested that… […]”, but there is no reference to any wolf studies in that chapter’s reference list at all. In fact, I found only 2 references to wolf behaviour studies in the reference lists for all the chapters, and both were to outmoded captive-wolf studies by Rudolf Schenkel**.
Dingo pack ABC
A dingo pack, like a wolf pack, is essentially an extended nuclear family consisting of the parents, called the breeding pair or the alpha pair, and some of their offspring, sometimes called beta. Only the breeding pair breeds, and only once a year – Dingoes are like wolves in that regard, and unlike domestic dogs.
Most offspring disperse when they reach sexual maturity and if they survive long enough, they’ll find an unrelated mate and breed somewhere else, hence creating their new pack on a new territory and becoming new “alphas” – parents. Offspring that chose to remain pack members of their natal pack don’t reproduce, but help rear their youngest siblings.
That is the basic ABC of dingo packs as well as wolf packs. Corbett mentions it on p. 59:
Packs are essentially extended families, similar to wolves and other canids; they comprise a mated pair, their offspring of the year plus some offspring from previous seasons.
and on p. 91, observing wild packs in a specific location:
Packs comprise a mated pair and their young from previous years […]
But everywhere else, the social structures and behaviours of dingo packs are described with complicating jargon that obscures the family structure. For example on page 35:
In stable packs the most dominant (alpha) female, usually the oldest, tends to come in oestrus before the other females in the pack, and some subordinate females seem to go through a pseudopregnancy.
Since the alpha female is usually the mother, and the subordinate females her daughters, what is the point of mentioning that the mother is usually older than her daughters?
The biggest problem with the book is that the important chapter on social dynamics along with Corbett’s general conclusions on dingoes’ social relations, pack formation and structure, breeding suppressing et.c. throughout the book, all build on a doubtful study of a captive dingo pack nicknamed Curly’s Mob. Page 80:
This chapter first describes the structure of a dingo pack in captivity to suggest how wild packs are formed and maintained.
Curly’s Mob was kept in a nature-imitating open air enclosure. A male and a female dingo were inserted in the enclosure at the beginning of the experiment and allowed to breed at will to create a pack. They had pups, thereby becoming the alpha pair / breeding pair of their pack-in-the-making. Their offspring were allowed to breed at will too. They could off course not disperse and go looking for mates somewhere else when they reached sexual maturity, as wild dingoes do, but bred with each other and their father.
The breeding pair did not prevent any of their offspring from mating, and their daughters all fell pregnant sooner or later. Breeding suppression, or the requirement that only the alpha pair (parents) have pups, was met by means of infanticide: the mother (Toots, the alpha female) killed all her daughter’s pups shortly after they were born, sometimes with help from other family members. Her daughters then helped rear her pups.
The experiment ran for 3 years and, if I understand it right, had to stop on ethical grounds after 2 pregnant females were mauled and killed by their family members.
Corbett draws a wealth of conclusions about wild dingoes from the Curly’s Mob study, throughout the book. A frequently repeated one is that dingoes use infanticide as reproductive regulation rather than suppress copulation of subordinate members like wolves do (p. 42 and many other places), although he finds it peculiar that dingoes waste energy having pups that are just going to get killed anyway.
I think the study design of “Curly’s Mob” is mindless, and it seems like a poor proxy for wild dingo packs.
Maybe dingoes do use infanticide as their main method of reproductive suppression, but that is hard to know when Curly’s offspring were prevented from dispersing and finding unrelated mates and have their pups somewhere else (where they themselves would become new alphas)… as wild dingoes do.
Would the alpha female still have killed all her daughters’ pups? Presuming most of her daughters had dispersed and mated and had pups somewhere else (thereby starting new packs and becoming breeding females / alphas), she would probably not even have known they existed.
What about the fact that every one of the killed pups was severely inbred (offspring of sister/brother and father/daughter matings)? The genetic health of the inbred pups would have been sub-average. Some could even have had birth defects and other detectable weaknesses. Maybe that could have played a role too. Maybe infanticide is an incest barrier – Plan B?
Also, the social dynamics of the pack could have been influenced by mating-eager youngsters who could not leave and pursue an unrelated mate, as they naturally would. Could that have triggered some of the incestuous matings, sexual violence and harassment of pregnant females?
Maybe or maybe not. Maybe that is the natural social dynamics of wild dingo packs, or some wild dingo packs, or wild dingo packs under certain conditions, or maybe only of captive dingo packs.
I am not the scientist, but it seems like reasonable sceptical questions to ask. There are too many shady variables, and I would have liked a more cautious and reflective approach from Corbett in his conclusions about wild dingoes based on Curly’s Mob.
Corbett’s tone is rational and impassive all the way through as he comments on the effectiveness of large scale poison baiting campaigns, spices chapters with doggers’ tales, and praises Thai dingo abattoirs for being a reliable source of dingo skulls and other samples for scientific use. Animals are collectibles and population numbers and casualties, not personalities. Fair enough… it is a science book after all, it has to be detached from its subject, I suppose.
That is, until the last chapter, “The Future of Expatriate Dingoes”. From that point the tone converts from dry science to big soap opera scaremongering drama about the threat of extinction of the dingo by… aerial baiting campaigns? Dispersal sinks? No, hybrids.
Corbett estimates that there are few if any pure dingoes left in the southern regions of Australia, and says that the pure dingo populations in the Northern regions of Australia as well as in Asia are under severe threat from hybridisation – which is cross-breeding between dingoes and domestic dogs.
He gives no scientific justification as to why dingoes must be pure and why hybridisation equals extinction… It just is so because when dingoes are not pure, then they are not dingoes.
There are many thousand feral dogs in the Australian outback. A big proportion of the plentiful Australian camp dogs (outback Aboriginal village dogs) are quite likely hybrids. What will Corbett do about that, kill them all? To eradicate hybrids would the ideal scenario according to Corbett, albeit not realistic. He discusses the idea of an island-based pure-breeding programme as conservation strategy on page 176 – 177:
In an ideal world people would own only neutered domestic dogs or dingoes; there would be adequate stocks of live dingoes and ova and sperm stored by dingo breeders, representing dingo diversity from all major Australian (and Asian) habitats; the bush would be cleared of all feral hybrids and feral dogs; stock would be totally protected from dingo predation; and the dream of releasing pure dingoes into the wild could then begin.
“The bush would be cleared of all feral hybrids and feral dogs”… because they are not real dingoes, they are genetic pollution. Conservationism in its most fanatic form.
So, I ended up playing Bullshit Bingo with the last chapter to detach myself from the ‘appeal to emotion’ type of rhetoric and keep my unease at bay. I circled all the epic-drama type of words such as “last bastions”, “alarming rate”, “doomed”, extinction”, “infiltrate”, “purity”, “contamination”, “save”, “admirable” and “losing the war”, as well as normatively loaded words like “must”, “win over” and “should” in connection therewith, such as “hybrid populations that should be terminated”. Then counted all the circles: 56 (in 16 pages). Bingo!***
The book is rich on information / observation data about the dingo’s role in Australian ecology. Its weak aspects are the parts about social dynamics, which are based on a experimental study of a captive dingo pack called Curly’s Mob. The author also has an ideological (conservationist) agenda and looses himself in an appeal to emotion type of rhetoric wherever he talks about hybridisation of dingo populations.
Besides these drawbacks the book is worth reading, albeit I recommend to keep the sceptical reading glasses on and take some of the conclusions with a grain of salt.
- Dingo: good brief fact sheet by New South Wales Environment & Heritance on environment.nsw.gov.au
- The dingo in Australia and Asia by Laurie Corbett and Kangaroos: biology of the largest marsupials by Terence Dawson: review by David Freudenberger on CSIRO
- Dingoes, dogs and the feral identity by Peter Fleming and Guy Ballard on The Conversation
- The Iconic Australian Dingo: blog post by Leema on leemakennels.com
- Australian Dingo Conservation Association
* Popular science = science news and education for people who are not educated in those sciences. That is the only kind of science news and literature I read.
** Outmoded because newer studies of wolf packs in the wild have shown that the social structure of wild wolf packs differ fundamentally from those of the captive wolf packs, so that the observations can not be extrapolated from captive to wild packs as it had originally been assumed.
*** That is not how Bullshit Bingo is really played.