Local zoologist finds rare wild dogs in New Guinea
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a column about James “Mac” McIntyre, a local resident and former high school teacher who retired but “did not go gentle into that good night.”
No, now that Mac had more free time on his hands, he dedicated himself to heading up a mission to rediscover the New Guinea highlands wild dogs.
Mac was not a stranger to the zoological profession. Before settling down as a high school teacher, he attained a graduate degree in zoology, worked as a head mammal keeper at the Bronx Zoo, a zoologist at White Oak Plantation, and participated in field expeditions in the Congo and in the South Pacific. Over the years, he became interested in the wild dogs of New Guinea, elusive canids only documented three times in the wild in the last century. A few pairs of “New Guinea singing dogs” were collected decades ago and are the founders of only a few hundred of these animals in captivity. Little is known about the genetics of these dogs in their native land on the island of New Guinea, or if there are one or two related species still in the wild.
Mac was up to the challenge. Over the course of a few years, he was able to put together a team to search for these dogs in the high altitude ridges of New Guinea, including mammal experts from the Bronx Zoo and the Jacksonville Zoo, geneticists from Cornell University, the University of California, Davis, and other institutions and most importantly, a collaboration with an Indonesian university and with a large mining company with facilities within the purported wild dog range in Papua Province, Indonesia.
With the team assembled, the only thing left to do was try. So last July, Mac set off to the Indonesian side of the island of New Guinea as expedition leader on the first attempt to actually locate some of these wild dogs.
For the first couple of weeks, he faced nothing but frustration – with permits, with staffing, with lack of access to the remote study site he had planned to helicopter into. But, amazingly, it all came together at the end. The mining company offered to take him up to its mine, at nearly 15,000 feet altitude. Once there, he talked to many workers who showed him photos they had taken of the dogs in the surrounding mountains. This mine is located far from any villages and far away from any domestic dog populations.
Mac went to work climbing up a steep track in this high, alpine terrain in an area where people had seen dogs previously. As he climbed, he played recorded sounds of coyotes in heat, pups in distress and other vocalizations that he thought would intrigue any other canids in the area. And he was right! When he backtracked down the path, he found tracks of a dog that had followed in his footprints!
He immediately set up 20 game cameras in this area and four in other remote areas. And lo and behold, he got photos of a number of these New Guinea highland wild dogs – a lactating mother, pups, adults of different color patterns, more photos than had even been taken of these animals in the wild. And, moreover, DNA testing of the scat samples he brought back home proved that these were indeed the species no one had seen for years!
This is just the first step. Now that Mac has found a population of these dogs, there is more work to be done. He will lead an expedition this summer to revisit the area with a team of zoologists and veterinarians and a plan to lure some of the dogs into traps, take blood and tissue samples for further DNA work, then give them full physical exams. Some will also be fitted with radio collars so their movements and behavior can be studied even from afar.
If the trapped dogs are indeed found to be the same species as the New Guinea singing dogs in captivity, sperm from the wild relatives could help enhance the captive population facing bottlenecks from inbreeding. Mac also hopes that education and conservation efforts will ensure their continued survival and the protection of their remote habitats.
If you want to learn more about Mac’s work, check out this website: www.nghwdf.org.
And if you, too, are retired, don’t let it stop you from forging ahead. Mac is living proof that dreams can come true if you work for them, no matter your age!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.