African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) seem poised on the cusp of democracy. A new paper reports that members of this endangered species use sneezes in lieu of votes when it’s time to decide on what the pack does next.
Ah, democracy. The worst system of government apart from all those we’ve tried before. It’s so good, in fact, that African wild dogs seem to be warming up to it, too. An international team of researchers working at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust reports that the animals gather in highly energetic greeting ceremonies (which they dub “social rallies”) after rest periods during which they decide what the pack does next. Every member gets to express his vote — by sneezing.
“I wanted to better understand this collective behaviour, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go,” says Dr Neil Jordan, a research fellow at UNSW Sydney and Taronga Conservation Society Australia and lead author of the paper.
The team recorded 68 such social rallies in 5 packs of African wild dogs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to see what was up with all the sneezing. Their analysis revealed that the more sneezes occurred during the rally, the more likely the pack was to move off and start hunting.
“The sneeze acts like a type of voting system,” Jordan concludes.
The team further reports on the intricacies of the voting system, saying that the dominant couple has a more central role to play. When the dominant male and female initiated the rally, fewer than ten sneezes resulted in an affirmative decision to move. If these two were not engaged, about 10 or so sneezes were required for the pack to start moving, they report. The average number of adults in the pack was 11, and the team witnessed 28 successful and 40 unsuccessful rallies.
“Quorums are also used by other social carnivores like meerkats, but our finding that the quorum number of sneezes changes, based on who’s involved in the rally, indicates each dog’s vote is not equal,” says co-author Dr King of the Swansea University Department of Biosciences.
The paper “Sneeze to leave: African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) use variable quorum thresholds facilitated by sneezes in collective decisions” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.