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African wild dogs – a democracy not to be sneezed at

Both wild and domestic canines place a great deal of emphasis on inter-species communication.

May 5, 2019 |
5 min read

Anybody that lives with a faithful canine companion will understand how social dogs can be. Dogs don’t just live to please their human masters, though. Both wild and domestic canines place a great deal of emphasis on inter-species communication.

A notable example of this is the African Wild Dog (Lycaon Pictus). Also referred to as Painted Hunting Dogs, Painted Wolves and African Hunting Dogs, these animals are community-motivated and live in substantial packs. It’s not uncommon for as many as 27 African Wild Dogs to live together – and hunt together.

Hunting to survive – and thrive

Hunting is a pivotal activity for this breed of canine. African Wild Dogs (a moniker with unflattering connotations, hence the informal renaming of the species as Painted Wolves) are hyper-carnivorous. They’ll scavenge if they must, but typically they’ll team up to hunt wildlife and enjoy a fresh kill.

Antelopes and wildebeest are their most popular prey, but African Wild Dogs also feast on smaller prey if necessary. In total, a pack will chow through as much as 3.7 lbs. of meat on any given day. That’s over 4,250 calories. As a frame of reference, a typical domesticated pet will eat just 30 calories to sustain their body weight.

Despite this innate ability to hunt larger prey, however, African Wild Dogs are far from the top of the food chain. Their native territory of sub-Saharan Africa is home to a sizable population of lions, who are not shy about picking off the canine population.

While there is strength in numbers to these dogs hunting in packs, they still need to pick and choose when to hunt. African Wild Dogs have a unique way of reaching this consensus.

Democracy in action

Domesticated canines typically communicate using their tails. The direction a tail is facing, whether or not it wags, and how it points are all non-verbal cues that reveal a dog’s state of mind. As Royal Society Publishing explains, African Wild Dogs vote on whether they’ll embark on a hunt by sneezing.

Like all species of canine, every pack will have an alpha, alongside other senior figures – including the alpha’s mate. African Wild Dogs operate more of a democracy, however. When deciding whether to launch a hunt, a collective agreement must be reached.

This vote to hunt is often instigated by the pack alpha. If the leader of a pack of African Wild Dogs wants to suggest a hunt, they’ll sneeze. This will not be a loud, aggressive, “achoo!” sound, but rather a short, guttural expulsion from the nostrils.

The alpha’s mate will often repeat this, signaling agreement. If one or two other canines replicate the sneeze, an agreement is reached. The pack will mobilize, and a hunt will begin.

Every voice matters

While the pack leader’s suggestions carry superior weight, this doesn’t mean that lesser members of the pack are ignored. Any African Wild Dog can express that they’re interested in a hunt by sneezing.

This will typically be due to hunger, but instinct is also a powerful thing. These canines live for the excitement that hunting provides, and a boisterous young member of the pack may be champing at the bit to get started.

The process is considerably slower when a lower-ranking member of the pack sneezes first, however. When instigated by the alpha, three sneezes will be enough to reach a consensus. When a lower-ranking canine makes the first move, as many as ten African Wild Dogs will need to concur.

Once this agreement is reached, the democracy is respected. Even if the alpha disagrees, they’ll go along with the group dynamic. No animal will be left behind, and the pack will hunt together. This is somewhat unique among wild dogs and wolves, who usually live or die by the wishes of their pack leader.

The thrill of the chase

When the time comes to hunt, the African Wild Dog uses similar techniques to the cheetah. In fact, they’re almost as fast as this famously swift big cat. The pack of African Wild Dogs will creep up on prey silently, approaching it from all sides. When they’re ready to strike, they’ll pounce and chase their would-be meal.

African Wild Dogs can reach a top speed of 40 miles per hour, and sustain that pace for as long as an hour. Naturally, this speed and endurance ensure that these canines are hugely successful hunters. They’ll chase a prey animal to the point of exhaustion, and beyond.

Once the target starts to slow down, the African Wild Dogs will bite at their legs to immobilize them. This is when the rest of the pack descends, and proceeds to eat their fill. This meal can be concluded within 15 minutes, as these canines eat as quickly and ruthlessly as they hunt.

It’s common for packs of hyenas to lay in wait, observing this. Once the African Wild Dogs have moved on, the hyenas will scavenge anything that remains. It’s also possible that the hyenas will interrupt the meal, though is less likely. A passing lion may also muscle in and take the kill for themselves, causing the African Wild Dogs to flee.

Few and far between

Sadly, the native population of African Wild Dogs is dwindling. The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the animal an endangered species in 2016, with disease and destruction of their natural habitats to blame.

These canines are also cautious when choosing a mate, carefully avoiding inbreeding. This means that, short of a population explosion arranged by conservationists, the African Wild Dog is expected to be extinct within 100 years.

In the meantime, however, this species remains a fascinating component of Africa’s eco-system. Next time you’re on safari, keep an eye out for a pack of these canines.

Watch from afar, and tread carefully if you notice any sneezing. This doesn’t suggest that African Wild Dogs are struggling with a bout of ‘flu – it means they’re hungry. Hunting will follow these sneezes as surely as night follows day.

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