|An 11-month-old female New Guinea singing dog (Oldsingerman20/Wikipedia)|
In addition to the many feral (run-wild) domestic dogs of relatively recent origin and varied appearance present throughout New Guinea, there may still exist in the more lofty reaches of its eastern highlands a very primitive canine form of much greater antiquity and well-defined morphology – the New Guinea singing dog.
This interesting animal resembles a short, fairly thickset Australian dingo with a broad vulpine face and varying coat colour (most commonly brown), but with a noticeably bushy tail that it sometimes curls to one side over its rump. It also compares closely with the dingo in relation to certain cranial-dental ratios held to be of significance in canid classification. Recent genetic research has revealed that both singing dog and dingo date back at least 4000 years, making them among the oldest of the ancient domestic dog breeds.
|New Guinea singing dog, a very early surviving domestic dog breed (Valerie Abbott)|
It was originally made known to the western world as long ago as 1606, when Diego de Prado reported finding specimens in southeastern Papua, while voyaging through the Torres Strait separating Papua from Queensland, Australia. The first specimen examined scientifically, however, was one that had been shot and killed by Sir William MacGregor on Mount Scratchley at 7000 ft in 1897, whose alcohol-preserved skin and skeleton were then sent by MacGregor to the Queensland Museum.
In 1957, Dr Ellis Troughton, Mammal Curator at the Australian Museum, classed it as a distinct species, dubbing it Canis hallstromi, in honour of Sir Edward Hallstrom (President of the Taronga Park Trust), and in an attempt to initiate further studies of this hitherto largely-ignored form that would determine its precise taxonomic status. Troughton based his description of this new species upon a pair housed at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. These had been received by Hallstrom in 1956 as a gift from Assistant District Officer J.P. Sinclair and Medical Assistant Albert Speer, who had obtained them while on patrol in the remote Lavani Valley in Papua's Southern Highlands District.
|Long-obscure, the New Guinea singing dog has elicited significant taxonomic controversy (Patti McNeal/Wikipedia)|
In 1971 Troughton published another paper treating C. hallstromi as a valid species; but two years earlier, following detailed studies of its breeding and offspring, Dr W. Schultz had proposed that it should be incorporated within the domestic dog’s species (Zoologischer Anzeiger, 1969). This was widely accepted, and today the creature is most commonly considered to be a long-established feral breed of domestic dog (as is the dingo), although a few researchers still favour its delineation as a separate species. Taxonomically, it has been classified variously as Canis familiaris dingo, C. lupus dingo, C. f. hallstromi, C. l. hallstromi, and C. hallstromi.
|New Guinea singing dog with rare black-and-tan coat colouration|
In any event, Troughton’s paper remains a very important contribution. It contains one of the most detailed accounts of this little-known dog currently available, documents early descriptions, details its relationship with the New Guinea natives (who looked upon it as a valued food item), and, most memorable of all, reveals that it does not bark, but gives vent to a curious howling whine instead. "A sort of whistling-yodelling" is the description given to me by Dr Desmond Morris, who was Curator of Mammals at London Zoo during the period when Sir Malcolm Sargent's pair was living there (see later). This last-mentioned characteristic has earned C. hallstromi its most popular English name, the New Guinea singing dog, and has inspired many unusual myths concerning it.
|A New Guinea singing dog...singing! (R.G. Daniel/Wikipedia)|
According to some, these animals harbour the souls of dead tribesmen, who communicate with their living relatives via the dogs’ yodelling. Moreover, the natives believe that by listening carefully to the specific tones of a given dog, the identity of the dead tribesman speaking with its voice can be instantly recognized. Also, their vocal abilities have inspired an interesting legend in the mythology of Port Moresby’s Motu tribe, claiming that it was these dogs that brought the gift of speech to humanity. And in the vicinity of eastern New Guinea’s Mount Hagen, the native people imitate this creature’s whistling yodels as an effective means of communicating with one another over great distances.
|New Guinea singing dog at San Diego Zoo, California (Asim Bharwani/Wikipedia)|
In earlier days, singing dogs were rarely seen beyond their New Guinea homeland, but nowadays they are widely exhibited in zoos around the world and are kept as house pets in North America. Conversely, they may not even exist any longer on a wild-living basis in New Guinea – no confirmed sightings have been documented since the 1970s there. Having said that, in 1988 Australian zoologist Dr Tim Flannery observed a number of possible specimens at Dokfuma (sceptics, however, claim that these may have been hybrids with domestic dogs rather than pure-bred singing dogs).
|Murray, a pet New Guinea singing dog|
On account of their name’s musical association, a pair of singing dogs was presented during the early 1960s as an undeniably original and delightfully appropriate gift to the eminent conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent, during one of his Australasian concert tours. Although Sir Malcolm became very fond of them, he had nowhere suitable to keep them, so in 1964 he donated the pair to London Zoo, where he visited them on several occasions thereafter, and where they soon became very popular attractions (raising a litter of cubs, containing some dingo blood). I can still readily recall my own first encounter with the London Zoo singing dogs, as it proved to be quite an unforgettable event.
|New Guinea singing dog at London Zoo, 1960s (Zoological Society of London)|
As a child of about six or seven at the time, I had read all about them in various books and magazines with unbounded fascination, and implored my parents to take me to see these wonderful dogs that could sing. When I reached their enclosure, one of them was at that very moment entertaining an enraptured audience with a thrilling rendition in falsetto fortissimo, so I eagerly thrust my way through the throng to obtain a closer view — a little too close for comfort, as it turned out.
I can only assume that its impromptu concert had proven too demanding for its voice, because just as I reached the front of the crowd, the singing dog stopped singing, turned around, and coughed violently and with unerring accuracy directly into my face! What a way to end its canine concerto! Still in a state of shock, I was swiftly dragged away by my mother, who was convinced that I would surely develop some hideous tropical disease. Needless to say, I did nothing of the kind but, not surprisingly, the whole incident remains one of my more vivid if unusual memories of childhood!
|New Guinea singing dog - a yodelling dingo? (Tomcue2/Wikipedia)|
Finally, I am greatly indebted to renowned zoologist Dr Desmond Morris, Curator of Mammals at London Zoo during much of the 1960s, for sharing with me the following priceless anecdote concerning these singing dogs. When Spike Milligan visited the zoo one day, Dr Morris showed them to him, and informed him that they belonged to Sir Malcolm Sargent. Spike’s opinion, given by way of reply, was, as always, purest Milliganesque:
“Their Bach is worse than their Bitehoven!”
|Still from video of Exmoor Zoo's New Guinea singing dogs (Gillian Abram/Graham Farr)|
The following delightful video of Exmoor Zoo's New Guinea singing dogs (the only ones currently on display in the UK) was filmed by Graham Farr and Gilliam Abram. Thanks very much, Graham and Gillian, for kindly permitting me to include your video here!
For further information concerning this enigmatic canid, I can heartily recommend the official website of the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society - click here
This ShukerNature post is an expanded, updated version of the relevant section from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited: From Singing Dogs To Serpent Kings (CFZ Books: Bideford, 2007).