It’s not often these days that I spend time with fellow international biologists, especially here on Amelia Island. It seems we are a rare and endangered breed. But recently I joined James “Mac” McIntyre on a morning walk on the Egans Creek Greenway to catch up on the latest news about his team’s work with New Guinea highland wild dogs.
I’ve known Mac for years, and wrote about him four years ago when his work was just getting off the ground, and far off the ground, for sure.
In the past few weeks, a number of media sources have been talking about a recent scientific paper by Mac and his team titled “New Guinea highland wild dogs are the original New Guinea singing dogs,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States.
Mac and the team he organized have so far made two expeditions to the highlands on the Indonesia side of the island of New Guinea with the help and support from the mining company PT Freeport Indonesia. Their field site is in the vicinity of the Grasberg mine, the largest gold mine and second largest copper mine in the world, located at 14,000 feet, above the tree line in Irian Jaya (West Papua). This remote and hostile location is only accessible through the mining company, which maintains a town below the mountain for a few thousand workers who are shuttled by four-wheel drive bus for an hour-long trip up to the mine to work. It is this remoteness from local villages that has led to the amazing discovery of a population of wild dogs that were once thought to be extinct. The dogs discovered high on this mountain have had no contact with village dogs and, as this recent scientific paper proves, they are a genetically pure strain of dogs, very similar to New Guinea singing dogs.
New Guinea singing dogs were collected from the wild of Papua New Guinea on the other side of the island in the 1950s and 1970s and have been bred in captivity from only eight individual founders. A few are exhibited in zoos and some are kept by private owners who house them behind high, deeply buried fences that can contain them. They have exceptional climbing, jumping and digging abilities, plus strong predatory instincts if they escape.
These dogs have a unique vocalization, described as an eerie, melodic, tonal howl, and represent perhaps the most primitive members of the wild dog family, along with the dingoes that they resemble genetically. But the dogs in captivity are suffering from problems of inbreeding, and no new singing dogs have been scientifically documented in the wild in over 50 years.
Mac, who has worked with the Bronx Zoo and retired from teaching biology at Fernandina Beach High School, has been doggedly (pun intended) pursuing these mysterious dogs for decades. He has been able to see this project through from his first idea to its current biologically important findings.
In the last expedition to the highlands, two dogs were radio-collared, DNA samples were collected, and new findings are ongoing. Hopefully, in the future, semen will be collected from some of these dogs to infuse more genetic diversity into the captive singing dog population.
I have much admiration for Mac in pursuing these investigations and succeeding in working with the government of Indonesia, the mining company, internationally established conservationists, and some of the foremost canid geneticists in the world from Texas A&M and the National Institutes of Health. He and I are of similar ages and I am impressed with Mac’s ability to tolerate the long flights and high altitude conditions once he gets to the study site. It’s not a pleasant place to work for sure. Thin air makes it hard to breathe, damp drizzly weather makes it miserable, and the terrain is a harsh mix of treeless flats and rocky mountains. But all of this is worth it to Mac, and now his work is paying off for the conservation community. These are quite possibly the rarest dogs on earth, and everything the team is learning about them is new to science.
You can learn more about this work by going to the New Guinea Highland Dog Founda-tion website at nghwdf.org, which Mac founded. Mac’s research can also be followed on Facebook at the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation.
As Mac and I walked along the Greenway, we shared our trials and tribulations of fieldwork in remote places, trading stories about our adventures. Most of all, we shared our love of wildlife and wild places and our hopes that some of these will remain for future generations to see. In this day and age, it takes a lot to be hopeful.
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.