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11 Wild Facts About Dingoes

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When most people hear the word "dingo," they most likely think of the famous movie line "a dingo ate my baby." While inspired by true events, there's a lot more to learn about the creatures than their baby-snatching reputations would suggest.

1. THE DINGO IS NOT A DOG BREED.

Technically, dingoes are not a breed of dog. They're only semi-domesticated and are just as much wolf as they are dog. So far, it's unclear if Canis lupus dingo was ever fully domesticated. Some evidence suggests that they may once have been pets, but were abandoned and left to revert to their wild state. It's believed that travelers from Indonesia or Southeast Asia dropped the once-domesticated dogs in Australia roughly 4000 years ago. The dogs, left to their own devices, thrived by falling back on the wolfish instincts of their ancestors. While some dingoes would travel and eat with Aboriginal tribes on the Australian continent, they were wary companions and certainly not pets.

2. THEY'RE CONSIDERED PESTS.

Left to fend for themselves, dingoes became the largest predator in Australia and enjoyed a wide variety of prey to gobble down. It wasn't until the English came to the country with their sheep that the dingo ran into some trouble. Dingoes feasted on the newcomers' livestock until the farmers were at their wit's end. While most dogs are considered man's best friend, dingoes are decidedly an enemy of the Australian farmer. Some sheep owners today have resorted to "guard donkeys" to protect their stock. The hoofed animals are low maintenance and scare away dingoes and foxes with their powerful kicks.

3. THE LARGEST FENCE IN THE WORLD WAS BUILT TO KEEP OUT DINGOES.

Australians desperate to keep their flocks safe resorted to building a fence in southeastern Australia to keep the dingoes out. The impressive fence is one of the longest structures in the world and is generally considered the longest fence. The original incarnation was a collection of small fences built in the 1880s to prevent the spread of rabbit plague, but they quickly fell into disrepair. In the early 1900s, they were repaired and converted into dingo fences. The various structures were connected in the 1940s to create one giant, continuous fence. It once stretched 8614 kilometers (5352.5 miles) long, but has since been shortened to 5614 kilometers (3488.4 miles). It costs 10 million Australian dollars a year in upkeep, but is considered mostly a success at keeping the predators out.

4. THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS.

The range of climates across Australia likely led to the development of different types of dingo, which all reside in different areas of the continent. Desert dingoes are reddish, golden yellow, or sand colored with a compact body size. Alpine dingoes are the most rare in the wild and have a light cream coat. Finally, northern dingoes have a finer stature and lack the double coat the other two types have.

5. SOME PEOPLE KEEP THEM AS PETS...

Some people might frown upon keeping a semi-wild animal as a pet, but others find dingo ownership to be very rewarding. The dogs are very loving and emotionally in tune. The attractive canines are lot like other domesticated dog breeds and can be walked on a leash and brought to the dog park.

That said, the dogs are very high-maintenance. Since dingoes are closely related to wolves, they have deeply ingrained pack values. They don't like being left alone and greetings are a necessary 15-minute procedure filled with patting, talking, and kissing. Failure to properly pay attention to the dogs' needs and pack mentality will leave the dogs disappointed and upset. Owners of dingoes will not be able to move frequently because of the dogs' dislike of change. Having a dingo as a pet is a full time responsibility, as dingoes don't handle rejection well and will likely not emotionally recover from being placed in a new home.

6. ...BUT IT'S ILLEGAL TO KEEP THEM AS PETS IN SOME PLACES.

In places like New South Wales and Western Australia, it's legal to own a dingo without a permit. Victoria and the Northern Territory require a special permit, but in Tasmania, Queensland, and South Australia, the wild dogs are completely illegal to own.

7. SOME DOGS HAVE DINGO IN THEIR ANCESTRY

Despite being somewhat wild, dingoes are still dogs and have mixed with other canine natives of Australia. You can find dingo blood in Australian Kelpies and Australian cattle dogs. Breeders realized that the sturdy wild dogs were perfect to help bulk up working dogs.

8. DINGOES HAVE OWL-LIKE ABILITIES

Dingoes are well-equipped for the Australian Outback, and have an impressive sense of vision. They can even swivel their heads about 180 degrees. Comparatively, owls can turn their heads 270 degrees; humans can only turn theirs 45 to 70 degrees.

9. THEIR BENDY WRISTS ARE HELPFUL.

Just like humans, dingoes have rotating wrists. This allows them to use their paws like hands to catch prey. It also helps them better climb trees and even open doors. Their flexible wrists let them climb and enter places other dogs can't go, making them a formidable pest for farmers trying to keep them away from their livestock.

10. THEY DON'T REALLY BARK.

Unlike your standard dog, dingoes are much quieter. Instead of barking, the dogs have a yodel-like howl.

11. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME IN CAPTIVITY.

In the wild, dingoes live somewhere between five to 10 years, but in captivity, they can live upwards of 18 to 20 years. This number is pretty impressive, as most domesticated dogs don't boast such a long lifespan. Comparatively, the English springer spaniel, which is roughly the same size as the dingo, only lives 10 to 14 years.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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