By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
African wild dogs live in packs of at least six and sometimes 20 or more animals, led by a male and female pair, or alpha pair. However, while the alpha male takes the lead on hunts,1 the decision of when to set out may sometimes come down to a group decision. What's more, whether or not to go is communicated via sneezing, according to a recent study by researchers with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust.
Neil Jordan, Ph.D., a research fellow at UNSW Sydney, and colleagues were compelled to conduct the study after noticing that African wild dogs living in Botswana often sneeze prior to setting off on hunts, during pre-hunt gatherings called "social rallies." Many of these high-energy greeting ceremonies result in "collective movements," like hunting, but not all, for reasons that are not well understood.
Interestingly, however, the more sneezes observed during the rally, the more likely the group was to take off on a hunt. Further, the dominant male and female's sneezes seemed to have more weight than those of their underlings.
African Wild Dogs Use Sneezes as 'Votes'
The researchers tracked five different packs of wild dogs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, observing their behaviors from vehicles. It turned out that, if a lower member of the pack initiated the rally, a total of at least 10 sneezes were needed for the group to leave on a hunt. However, if one of the dominant dogs initiated it, only three sneezes were needed to send the group hunting.
"The more sneezes that occurred, the more likely it was that the pack moved off and started hunting. The sneeze acts like a type of voting system," Jordan said in a news release.2 So it appears that while the dominant wild dogs' votes hold more weight in the system, they don't necessarily have the final say. If enough lower-ranking animals concur, their collective vote can rule the roost. The study, which was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, concluded:3
" … [T]he number of sneezes needed for the group to depart (i.e. the quorum) was reduced whenever dominant individuals initiated rallies, suggesting that dominant participation increases the likelihood of a rally's success, but is not a prerequisite. As such, the 'will of the group' may override dominant preferences when the consensus of subordinates is sufficiently great."
Speaking to National Geographic, carnivore researcher Dedan Ngatia, of Mpala Research Center in Kenya, described the results as "a really huge finding," adding, "I frankly never thought that sneezing was an important factor."4
African Wild Dogs Have a Complex Social Structure
The finding adds another layer of complexity to what's already known about African wild dog social structure. While it appears the animals may have a democratic decision-making process when it comes to some activities, the pack consists of young only from the alpha pair, while lower-ranking dogs take care of the pups.5
African wild dogs are also unique in that there is very little aggression between pack members, who typically act altruistically, feeding regurgitated food to the young as well as to adult members who are sick, wounded or unable to go on the hunt.6
According to the nonprofit African Wild Dog (AWD) Conservancy, even during a hunt when an individual takes down prey, it will leave it to bring back other pack members to feed. In addition, it's likely that the animals use many other forms of communication along with sneezing.
AWD Conservancy described African wild dogs as having one of the most complex vocal repertoire among canids, with some sounds unique to the species. In addition, their description of African wild dog social rallies reveals that sneezing is just one behavior going on among many:
"The onset of the greeting ceremony is frequently initiated by a single dog running up to another one with head shoulder height, mouth agape, and ears folded back. Muzzle-to-muzzle contact is an important feature of the ceremony. Such contact, including lip licking and biting, appears to be a symbolic solicitation for food.
Greeting behavior in adults might have developed from infantile begging. During the ceremony many different kinds of sounds can be heard including whines, whimpers, squeals, and high-pitched bird-like sounds called 'twitters.'"7
It would be fascinating to know what these animals are really saying to each other during the rallies, and hopefully one day researchers will find out. There's still so much to learn about these incredibly social creatures, but their numbers are on the decline.
Due to their habitat becoming increasingly fragmented, conflicts with humans — including falling victim to snares and livestock and game farmers who may shoot them, believing they pose a threat to their farm — and infectious disease, there are only an estimated 6,600 left in the wild, making African wild dogs an endangered species.8