Skip to main content
Move the World.
new guinea singing dog

Lead Image (c) Patti McNeal / Wikimedia Commons

Have you heard the set of pipes on the New Guinea singing dog? If you haven't, you're not alone. The canine, one of the world's oldest and rarest dog breeds, was considered extinct for decades. 

But new genetic evidence suggests the dogs may have been hiding, more or less in plain sight, in the highlands. Now, the ancient dog's genome may have something to teach us about human vocalization, too. 

What Happened to the New Guinea Singing Dog

The New Guinea singing dog's crooning voice is often compared to the song of a humpback whale or a professional yodeler. Although they were considered extinct in the wild, they weren't silenced completely. About 200 remain in captivity. They are the descendants of a few dogs captured in the 1970s. The lineage has lived only in zoos or conservation centers ever since.

Or so we thought.

In a new genetic study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists compared the DNA of the captive dogs to DNA from the rare Highland Wild Dog and found that they are essentially the same dog — one disappeared from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the other survived on the Indonesian side of the island.

"New Guinea singing dogs are rare, they're exotic, they have this beautiful harmonic vocalization that you don't find anywhere else in nature so losing that as a species is not a good thing."

Elaine Ostrander

In other words, the functionally "extinct" New Guinea singing dog has existed all along.

"New Guinea singing dogs are rare, they're exotic, they have this beautiful harmonic vocalization that you don't find anywhere else in nature so losing that as a species is not a good thing. We don't want to see this (animal) disappear," Elaine Ostrander, an investigator at the National Institutes of Health and lead author of the paper, told CNN.

How They Discovered an Extinct Animal

James McIntyre, president of the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation, spent a month looking for the animal while snapping wild dog pictures in 2016. He returned two years later to collect biological samples. 

Scientists compared DNA extracted from the biological samples of three wild dogs found by McIntyre and found that the dogs he photographed in the highlands were likely predecessors of the vanished singing dogs, New York Times reports.

The wild dogs and the captive New Guinea singing dogs had about 72% of genes in common — proving the wild dogs are more closely related to the captive New Guinea singing dog than any other canine. Their next closest relatives are the Australian dingoes.

Even though the genomes aren't identical, the researchers determined that the differences are due to the lack of genetic diversity from inbreeding among the captive dogs.

"The conservation dogs are super inbred; (it) started with eight dogs, and they've been bred to each other, bred to each other, and bred to each other for generations — so they've lost a lot of genetic diversity," Ostrander told CNN. 

The researchers hope that this discovery will open up opportunities to learn more about modern dogs and dog domestication history. The discovery could also raise opportunities to learn more about the genetic foundations of vocalization, reports the National Human Genome Research Institute. As a comparative genomics research field typically centered around birdsongs, having a singing mammal, more closely related to humans, could accelerate future treatments for human vocalization deficits.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Genetics
The Murder Hornet’s Genome May Help Stop the Invasion
asian giant hornet
Genetics
The Murder Hornet’s Genome May Help Stop the Invasion
The Asian giant hornet has invaded the Pacific Northwest. Researchers hope a map of the murder hornet’s genome can help their hunt for them.

The Asian giant hornet has invaded the Pacific Northwest. Researchers hope a map of the murder hornet’s genome can help their hunt for them.

CRISPR
Gene-Edited Squid: A Breakthrough in Brain Health Research
gene edited squid
CRISPR
Gene-Edited Squid: A Breakthrough in Brain Health Research
Researchers use CRISPR to create a gene-edited squid. This work could help advance research on neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's or Alzheimer's.

Researchers use CRISPR to create a gene-edited squid. This work could help advance research on neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's or Alzheimer's.

Virology
Studying Pig Sh*t to Prevent the Next Pandemic
pig virus
Virology
Studying Pig Sh*t to Prevent the Next Pandemic
A pilot program in North Carolina offers one solution to scanning for a potential pig virus in our farm system - slurry testing.

A pilot program in North Carolina offers one solution to scanning for a potential pig virus in our farm system - slurry testing.

Robotics
New Exosuit Helps Stroke Survivors Walk Farther and Faster
exosuit
Robotics
New Exosuit Helps Stroke Survivors Walk Farther and Faster
A new exosuit helps stroke survivors overcome hemiparesis by assisting them in making two key walking motions with their feet.

A new exosuit helps stroke survivors overcome hemiparesis by assisting them in making two key walking motions with their feet.

Mysteries of Science
What Is Static Electricity? We May Finally Have an Answer.
Schematics showing the flow of electricity in two common static electricity experiences. Illustration by Teresa Stanton.
Mysteries of Science
What Is Static Electricity? We May Finally Have an Answer.
This model, created by doctoral students, provides a convincing explanation for a mystery that is thousands of years old - the cause of static electricity.

This model, created by doctoral students, provides a convincing explanation for a mystery that is thousands of years old - the cause of static electricity.

Dope Science
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Dope Science
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Johns Hopkins is throwing its considerable clout behind the fast-growing field of psychedelic research, pouring $17 million into a research center to study the hallucinogenic drugs.

Johns Hopkins is throwing its considerable clout behind the fast-growing field of psychedelic research, pouring $17 million into a research center to study the hallucinogenic drugs.

Go Deeper
Hope Grows for Patients with Spinal Cord Injuries
Hope Grows for Patients with Spinal Cord Injuries
Go Deeper
Hope Grows for Patients with Spinal Cord Injuries
Severe spinal cord injuries resulting in total paralysis are usually considered permanent, with no hope of recovery. And yet, in a handful of patients spanning multiple levels of severity, movement is being regained.

Severe spinal cord injuries (SCIs) -- often called complete injuries by clinicians -- are ones where no readable signal from the brain reaches the spinal cord beneath the trauma, resulting in total paralysis. The possibility that a patient with this type of severe injury might regain movement was once considered so remote that rehab has traditionally seemed a waste of time. And yet, in a handful of patients spanning...

Dispatches
A Tumor-Killing Virus Could Treat Eye Cancer and Save Children's Sight
A Tumor-Killing Virus Could Treat Eye Cancer and Save Children's Sight
Dispatches
A Tumor-Killing Virus Could Treat Eye Cancer and Save Children's Sight
The only treatment for retinoblastoma is surgical removal of the eye—but scientists may have found another way:...
By Hemant Khanna

The only treatment for retinoblastoma is surgical removal of the eye—but scientists may have found another way: cancer-killing viruses.