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Africa’s Democratic Dogs

African wild dog in Botswana

African wild dog in Botswana

Andrew King

Andrew King

African wild dog in Botswana

Andrew Fewster, ECU Reporter

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The idea might sound howling mad, but African wild dogs in Botswana are using a majority style voting system to decide when the pack will start their hunt, according to a recent international study.

The study showed that dogs need to reach what is called a “quorum threshold” before they start to move, using sneezes to communicate.

The discovery was made while the study’s senior author, Dr Neil Jordan, was working to better understand the “social rallies” they have, which are periods between resting and moving off where the pack have “highly energetic greeting ceremonies”.

“We recorded details of 68 social rallies from five African wild dog packs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and couldn’t quite believe it when our analyses confirmed our suspicions,” said Dr Jordan, research fellow at UNSW Sydney and Taronga Conservation Society Australia.

“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 said.

The study also found the “quorum threshold” changed depending on who was voting, indicating some dogs have more sway.

The first author of the study, Reena Walker of Brown University in the US, discussed the disproportionate representation some of the dogs had.

“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,” she said.

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

The packs can range up to 20 or more dogs, meaning roughly half are required to vote in favour of moving if the dominant pair don’t participate.

These new findings are nothing to sneeze at, and are changing scientist’s understanding of the social behaviour of the African wild dogs.

The co-author of the study, Dr Andrew King of Swansea University in the UK said “the unusual finding is that the dogs are using sneezes in their collective decision making process,” as it was previously thought this behaviour was just to clear their noses.

“… The kind of ‘voting mechanism’ which is linked to a quorum probably allows dogs to get going and start foraging with increased speed,” he continued.

The study also calls for more research into the area in order to increase understanding, as it was the first study to “assess behaviour and decision-making processes in African wild dog pre-departure rallies.

“Further research identifying specific signals used to establish group consensus will help us to better understand the evolution of social behaviour in carnivores and other social mammals.”

The study was funded by the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT), who received grants from Wild Entrust International, Tusk Trust and private donors.

BPCT are one of the longest running conservation projects in Africa, and focus on protecting the large carnivore species of Botswana.


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Africa’s Democratic Dogs