NHGRI Scientists Study Ancient Dog Breed

New Guinea Singing Dogs May Hold Clues to Human Vocalization



Studying the New Guinea highland wild dog, the original New Guinea singing dog, may help scientists understand how human vocalization developed. Shown: a male New Guinea highland wild dog.

The New Guinea singing dog, whose harmonious wolf-like howls sound eerily like whale songs, was thought to have been extinct in the wild for some 50 years. But researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) reported, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that their genome analysis has confirmed that this breed still roams the New Guinea Highlands (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 117:24369-24376, 2020). Moreover, studying these dogs may help scientists understand how human vocalization developed.

“One of the cool things about genomics is that once you do the genome sequence of something, you can go back to that data over and over and over to look at different traits,” explained Elaine Ostrander, NIH Distinguished Investigator and senior author of the paper. “We went to it to test and see if these were, in fact, the New Guinea singing dogs. But we can go back to it again and see if we can find the genes responsible for vocalization.”

The New Guinea singing dog was first studied in 1897. In the late 1960s, when it was clear that the breed was endangered, eight of the dogs were brought to the United States for conservation purposes. There are 200–300 of these dogs in captivity today, but the effects of inbreeding in such a small pool of individuals for many generations has resulted in loss of genomic variants that existed in their wild counterparts.

More recently another wild dog population, called the “New Guinea highland wild dog,” has been sighted. It is physically similar to and thought to be the predecessor of the singing dogs. In 2016, the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Papua (West Papua, Indonesia), led an expedition to Indonesia and found 15 highland wild dogs. In a follow-up field study in 2018, blood samples were collected from three of the dogs and analyzed by Ostrander’s lab in NHGRI. The DNA analysis revealed an ancestral relationship between the highland wild dog and the New Guinea singing dog. They are essentially the same breed, according to the researchers. The genomes are not identical, however, because the populations have been physically separated for several decades and due to inbreeding among the captive New Guinea singing dogs.

Elaine Ostrander

Elaine Ostrander’s team confirmed via genomic analysis that there is an ancestral relationship between the New Guinea highland wild dog and the New Guinea singing dog, long thought to be extinct in the wild.

“There’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the conservation populations and bring back the true New Guinea singing dog” by establishing breeding programs, said Ostrander. “It’s one of the many examples of how the Human Genome Project benefits a lot more than just humans.”

Moreover, the discovery of free-living highland wild dogs may provide greater insight into the genomics of vocalization, a field that has previously relied on the study of birdsongs. According to Heidi Parker, an NHGRI staff scientist who led the genomic analysis, it is believed that dogs developed barking as a means to mimic human speech after they were domesticated. This belief is supported by the fact that wolves do not bark, and neither do highland wild dogs, which seldom encounter people. The highland wild dogs are unique in that they neither bark nor howl but have developed a completely different form of vocalization with their singing, the purpose of which is yet unknown.

Heidii Parker and her large dog sitting across her lap

Heidi Parker and her dog Hattie. Parker led the genomic analysis in the study. The discovery of free-living highland wild dogs may provide greater insight into the genomics of vocalization, a field that has previously relied on the study of birdsongs.

“We think that this could be a really great comparison [with] both wolves and [with] modern dogs to understand what changed in [the highland wild dogs] to change the tones, basically to hold these very sort of musical notes versus a barking sound,” said Parker. The genome sequences collected in this study can be searched for the genes responsible for vocalization and those genes can be compared with the ones found in the human genome; the differences and variations could reveal more about what these genes do. “It could even give us some indication of how people sing.”

The researchers also hope that their studies will provide insights into how deficits in human vocalization occur and offer clues that could lead to treatments.

    Natalie Hagen                                          

Natalie Hagen is a postbaccalaureate research fellow in the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, where she is performing pharmacokinetics studies of novel drug candidates. After her fellowship is over in 2021, she is planning to pursue a Ph.D. In her spare time, she likes to run, read, and go hiking with friends.