A PNG singing dog, doing what it does best. (Credit: R.G. Daniel/Flickr)

PNG singing dog: world's most elusive canine

  • August 14, 2014

A close relative of dingoes, the New Guinea singing dog is more likely to be heard than seen

Contributor
Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

MEET THE NEW GUINEA singing dog (Canis dingo hallstromi), one of the world's most elusive canines. Almost impossible to find in the wild, these charismatic canines are hidden away in the vast, thickly forested mountains of West Papua, where even the locals would struggle to find one if they tried.

Only two recorded photographs exist of a wild New Guinea Singing Dog - one by Tom Hewitt, Director of Adventure Alternative Borneo, taken in the remote Star Mountains region of Western New Guinea in 2012, and the other by Australian mammalogist Tim Flannery, in 1989.

Affectionately known as 'singers', because of their unique vocalisations that sound like "a wolf howl with overtones of whale song", they have a very similar look to the Australian dingo (Canis lupus dingo), but are about one-third smaller, with shorter legs, broader skulls and high cheekbones. The average male Singer measures around 42cm at the shoulder and they weigh around 11kg. The females are slightly smaller.

Singers have short, double coats, coloured either golden red or black and tan, and they have white markings under the chin, paws and on the tip of the tail, and sometimes on the face, neck and chest.

They're unusually flexible for dogs, which no doubt helps them to navigate the rugged terrain of their mountain home.

"One of the first things people notice about Singers is their physical grace and agility," says Janice Koler-Matznick from the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society in the US, one of the world's foremost experts on the animal. "They have a very elastic spine and joints, and therefore move fluidly: more like a cat than a dog. They are adapted to being climbers and jumpers, not long distance trotters or runners."

 
A singing dog pup. (Credit: Nathan Rupert/Flickr)

Origin of singing dogs

Little is known about the origin of the singer, but it's thought that - like their closest relative, the Australian dingo - they were moved around by the Australian and New Guinea locals as they traveled between the islands more than 4,000 years ago.

A theory proposed by Susan Bulmer, a New Zealand-based archaeozoologist who has worked extensively in New Guinea, suggests that an ancestral dog could have arrived in New Guinea as early as 10,000-20,000 years ago, when all kinds of animals were being brought to the island.

Once the land bridge connecting Australia and New Guinea had been flooded over, says Susan, the two populations became distinct breeds - the Australian dingo and New Guinea Singing Dog.

While there's no way to know how many singers are left in the wild, conservation groups are concerned that so few sightings could be a bad sign. But perhaps they're just incredibly good at hiding from humans in one of the most remote and impenetrable forests in the world.

Right now, captive breeding programs are concentrated in the US, where several zoos are working to bring their numbers up.

Listen to a singing dog here: