Democracy: It’s for the dogs

An international team of researchers has uncovered that African wild dogs behave in an unusual way: voting by sneezing to determine when the pack is ready to move out for the hunt.

While it is common for certain animals to reach a consensus before partaking in a particular activity, the fact that the dogs used sneezing to vote and that not all votes are equal within the pack are both unique aspects to the dogs’ behaviour.

Research such as this into communication methods amongst African wild dogs may play a larger role in conservation management as well as offering some exciting pure research outcomes in general.

The research group, which consisted of Dr Neil Jordan, Reena Walker and Dr Andrew King, recorded details of 68 social rallies from five African wild dog packs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Their results have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Jordan noticed that African wild dogs performed energetic greeting ceremonies called ‘social rallies’ after rest periods before moving off to hunt again.

“I wanted to better understand this collective behaviour, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go.”

Jordan said at first he couldn’t quite believe what the analyses revealed.

“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.”

He speculated that the dogs originally sneezed to clear the airways prior to departure and that the action became a reliable sign of this intent.

The findings identified a further twist: that the dominant pair’s votes had more weight amongst the group, Walker said.

“We found that when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off.

“However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed – approximately 10 – before the pack would move off.”

King said that while quorums are used by other social carnivores such as meerkats, the finding that each dog’s vote was not equal made this example more unusual.

Meerkats were important in the context of the wild dog study because they also have vocal mechanisms underlying their quorum decisions, he added.

“They call to indicate they are about to move and when enough of them have called they move. So, one behaviour (calling) is used as a signal or cue regarding the other behaviour (moving). The dogs do something similar with their sneezes.”

Andrew King 1
African wild dog Lycaon pictus. Copyright: Andrew King

Quorums may be widespread because they produce a consensus quickly, he said. Aside from vertebrates, social such as ants and bees also use quorums as do certain types of bacteria.

“In the case of bees, which dance to direct one another to new sites – once the number of bees at a site reaches a quorum the bees begin an additional recruitment strategy to dancing, known as piping. Many species of bacteria also use quorums to coordinate gene expression according to the density of their local population.”

Jordan said that while the sample size of five African wild dog packs was already “pretty good,” there was still a lot to learn in terms of their communication in general.

“We are working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust here and a major part of our collective work is in studying carnivore communication and attempting to apply this knowledge in conservation management.

“Getting a deeper understanding of how they communicate opens up the potential for us to direct their movements or behaviour for conservation benefit, for example by deterring them from entering farmland or from killing livestock when they are there.”

Dr Neil Jordan is a research fellow at the Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of New South Wales and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Reena Walker was an undergraduate research technician at Brown University in the US at the time of the research and Dr Andrew King is an associate professor at Swansea University in the UK.

The study was conducted with assistance from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust which received grants from Wild Entrust International, Tusk Trust and various private donors.

Article by Miklos Bolza
Miklos Bolza graduated with an honours degree in science from UNSW (majoring in maths and physics), now works as a freelance science journalist, and can’t wait until space tourism really ramps up

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