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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 3

Photograph of the World’s Rarest Dog Sparks a Quest to Save the Species

An elusive, endangered dog may be saved by dint of a recent photograph
New Guinea singing dog



COURTESY OF TOM HEWITT

The New Guinea singing dog is arguably the rarest Canis species in the world, more endangered than any other wild dog, jackal, coyote or wolf. The dogs' distinctive vocalizations—imagine a wolf howl crossed with whale song—can occasionally be heard echoing down from their homes in the rugged mountain ranges of the island of New Guinea, but the shy, agile animals have eluded many efforts to find them. They have been photographed in the wild only twice—once by Australian mammalogist Tim Flannery in 1989 and again by wildlife tour guide Tom Hewitt in August 2012.

Hewitt snapped his photograph in the remote Star Mountains of West Papua, where some of the small wild population may have made the region's cloud forests their home. Inspired by Hewitt's picture, a team of researchers will be heading next year to the base of Mount Mandala in the region to seek the wild population. Members plan to collect DNA samples from sources such as scat piles and shed hairs to confirm Hewitt's sighting. Ultimately, they hope to capture a wild New Guinea singing dog.

The expedition isn't about trophy hunting, says leader James “Mac” McIntyre, director of the Southwest Pacific Research Foundation in Fernandina Beach, Fla. “Even though the dog photographed in August 2012 had the phenotype, or the physical 'look' of a New Guinea singing dog, science always requires definitive proof,” McIntyre notes. That proof can come only through matching a dog's genotype, or genetic makeup, to that of purebred captive dogs, which number only about 200 individuals worldwide. Capturing a wild specimen may be crucial to the survival of the species because its bloodline could be infused into captive populations that are compromised by generations of inbreeding.

This article was originally published with the title "In Search of a Wild Song."

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