Best in show: Sandy the dingo wins genome competition

Photo by Barry Eggleton

It’s best-in-show time at the World’s Most Interesting Genome Competition.

Yes, it’s real. A public competition was held to determine which animal on earth has the most interesting genome. The winner, selected by popular vote from more than 200 entries, is Sandy Maliki, a rare purebred desert dingo from Australia. As a result of winning, Sandy will have her genome sequenced.

“Sandy is truly a gift to science,” said Professor Bill Ballard of the University of New South Wales School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences. Ballard led the project that brought Sandy to fame. “Pure dingoes are intermediate between wild wolves and domestic dogs, with a range of non-domesticated traits. So sequencing Sandy’s genome will help pinpoint some of the genes for temperament and behavior that underlie the transition from wild animals to perfect pets.”

Not only that, but the sequencing could have huge benefits for Australian wildlife. Pure dingoes are declining in population as the breed mates with domesticated dogs.

“Learning more about dingo genetics will help efforts to conserve these wonderful Australian animals, through the development of improved tests for dingo purity,” said Ballard.

The results of the work with Sandy could teach researchers about how animals become domesticated, and may even test theories from Charles Darwin, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Darwin suggested that there are two steps in the process of domestication. One is artificial selection, which happens through deliberate human activities such as breeding. The other, unconscious selection, is the result of unintentional influences from humans.

“This project will reveal the DNA changes between wolves and dingoes (unconscious selection) and dingoes and dogs (artificial selection),” said Ballard.

Sandy was found as a sickly pup in 2014 along with her two siblings, Eggie Warrigal and Didi Mirigung (Maliki, Warrigal and Mirigung are other terms for the breed). The dingoes’ owners, who maintain a Facebook page for the animals, nursed the pups back to health and raised them on their own property.

While it’s legal to own dingoes in Australia, certain states have restrictions and require a permit. Dingoes were introduced to the continent several millennia ago by the Aboriginals.

In order to take the victory, Sandy beat out five other finalists, including the bombardier beetle, which shoots hot explosive gas; a pink pigeon, which is an endangered relative of the extinct dodo; a solar-powered sea slug and the temple pit viper, whose venom may have medicinal advantages.

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