African wild dog packs vote democratically by sneezing
How do animals that hunt in packs make group decisions? African wild dogs have it gured out: they sneeze.
African wild dogs are one of the most cooperative species on the planet. Wild dogs bond within a group more strongly than lions or hyenas, and they are extraordinarily non-aggressive toward each other. A pack of dogs works together to prevent inbreeding, raise their young, defend the pack, and hunt. This lifestyle means coming to a group consensus, which is extremely important, especially for hunting and migrating; the pack needs to decide when to get going and when to stay put.
To make these decisions, the pack holds a round of group sneezes called a rally, according to a study published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. The sneezing rally serves as a rudimentary voting process. The more sneezes, the more likely the rally is to succeed: that is, getting the pack to move.
This study is the rst to nd that wild dogs use sneezes to communicate. The most surprising nding is not the sneezing itself, but the fact that the sneezing seems democratic: the dogs follow a fairly strict dominance hierarchy, so scientists previously thought that the highest- ranked dogs made decisions for the group; yet, it turns out, even the dogs at the bottom of the hierarchy have a say.
While groundbreaking for dogs, the vote-by-sneeze process isn’t really democratic by human standards. Any dog can initiate a sneezing rally, but the lower a dog’s social rank, the more sneezes it needs for its rally to succeed. And some dogs have been observed to “vote” more than once.
Study co-author Reena Walker hopes that the modest media attention to the study’s findings will raise public awareness of African wild dogs, an endangered species. “They’re absolutely gorgeous animals,” she told National Geographic. “The more people who are aware [of] how amaz- ing these animals are, the better.”
African wild dogs are highly endangered, because their natural habitat in sub- Saharan Africa is being rapidly replaced by human settlements. They are also frequently shot by farmers hoping to protect their livestock.
There are about 3,000 remaining African wild dogs, including those in parks and reserves, and this population is decreasing. Conservation groups like the African Wild Dog Conservancy in Kenya and Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe are work- ing to reverse this trend — they collaborate with local communities to monitor the dogs, combat poaching, and raise awareness.