By Pauline Askin
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's dingo is a unique species, not a kind of wild dog as previously believed, according to a new study that definitively classifies the country's largest land predator.
The research by Australian scientists, published in the Journal of Zoology, resurrected the species name "Canis dingo", first adopted in 1793 by Friedrich Meyer, a German naturalist.
"What we've done is describe the dingo more scientifically," Mike Letnic from the University of New South Wales told Reuters.
The confusion over whether the dingo was a distinct species partly originated from the previous classification based on a simple drawing and description in the 18th century journal of Australia's first governor, Arthur Phillip, without reference to a physical specimen.
"When Phillip got home to England he wrote about his adventures and in that book he wrote one paragraph about the dingo and published a picture and that was, until now, what science knew of the dingo," Letnic said.
The team found the physical features that define the dingo are a slim build, relatively broad head, long snout, pointy ears and bushy tail, with a weight of 15 to 20 kg (33 to 44 pounds).
To isolate dingoes unlikely to have cross-bred with domestic dogs, the team tracked 69 skull and skin specimens pre-dating 1900 in museums and archaeological sites in Europe, Australia and America to create a benchmark description.
"What we did was say this is what dingoes look like before 1900 and that's what a dingo looks like because there were not very many dogs around," Letnic said. "That's where the benchmark comes in."
Dingoes were introduced to Australia around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, with genetic evidence suggesting they originated from East Asian domestic dogs. They bred in isolation until the arrival of dogs accompanying European settlers from 1788.
The scientists think there are still pure dingoes in parts of Australia, Letnic said, but without having the DNA from these old animals, they cannot be 100 percent sure.
Distinguishing pure dingoes from those mixed with feral dogs is an important issue as some parts of Australia support the conservation of dingoes but the extermination of "dingo dogs" that are seen as pests by farmers because they kill livestock.
Dingo behavior was at the center of one of Australia's longest-lived legal mysteries, resolved in 2012 by a coroner's finding that one of the animals had carried off an infant, Azaria Chamberlain, from a tent in the outback in 1980.
The body was never found and although her parents always maintained she had been taken by a dingo, the mother was jailed for three years over the death before being cleared, while the father received a suspended sentence as an accessory.
Dingoes play a vital role by regulating populations of animals such as kangaroos, wallabies and invasive red foxes.
The scientists hope a better understanding of dingo numbers based on the clearer identification will help determine their place in biodiversity.
"What our research shows is dingoes are not just yellow," Letnic said. "A lot of people think if it's black it can't be a dingo and kill it."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Clarence Fernandez)