The New Guinea singing dog is an extremely rare breed of canine known for producing melodic barks and howls, similar to the call of a humpback whale. For the last 50 years, they were thought to be extinct in the wild, with only about 200 living in conservation centers or zoos.

An expedition in New Guinea in 2016 located 15 wild dogs in the remote highlands of the Papua province of Indonesia. A second expedition in 2018 returned to the site to collect biological samples to confirm if the dogs there are predecessors of New Guinean singing dogs.

The scientists analyzed DNA samples from the dogs’ blood. According to a study published on Aug. 31, the dogs found in New Guinea have genome sequences much more closely linked to that of captive singing dogs than any other canine. Differences were attributed to severe inbreeding and thus a small gene pool among captive singing dogs.

“They look most related to a population of conservation biology New Guinea singing dogs that were descended from eight dogs brought to the United States many, many, many years ago,” said Elaine Ostrander, senior author of the paper published Monday and a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. “They’ve been bred to each other, bred to each other, and bred to each other for generations, so they’ve lost a lot of genetic diversity.”

Researchers hope to breed a true population of singing dogs with a larger gene pool, as well as deepen human understanding of dogs before they were domesticated.

“By getting to know these ancient, proto-dogs more, we will learn new facts about modern dog breeds and the history of dog domestication,” Ostrander said. “After all, so much of what we learn about dogs reflects back on humans.”