Natural History

Social Behavior

African wild dogs are highly social carnivores that live in packs. The difference in the degree of sociality in wild dogs and wolves appears to be reflected in resting patterns. The extremely social nature of wild dogs is reflected in the maintenance of physical contact or relatively short inter-individual distances while resting. Unlike wolves, they typically disperse in groups. Lone dogs and peripheral pack members are rare. Compared to wolves, aggression is generally muted. Cooperation is the key to survival and reproduction.

Pack formation in wild dogs is a social process that usually involves more than two individuals. Although the formation of new packs affects both individual fitness and population dynamics, and therefore is highly relevant to the conservation of this endangered species, little is known about the process of formation itself in the wild and the proximate mechanisms that influence outcomes.

Typically same-sex relatives emigrate and join opposite-sex groups. Our observations in the field suggest that group compatibility can influence whether stable reproductive units form. When opposite-sex groups join, they undergo what has been termed a "trial courtship" that may or may not result in the formation of a stable reproductive unit. If a new pack does not stay together, it annuls. Any given instance of pack annulment may be due to one or more causal factors that vary both temporally and regionally. An analysis of resting patterns suggests that spatial relationships mirror the relative strength of social bonds and thus the degree of social integration between females and males.

Three brothers
Wild dogs resting together

A pack consists of any group of wild dogs with a potentially reproductive pair. Packs are typically composed of related females, related males, and pups. If a pack contains more than two adults, the reproductive pair consists of the dominant male and female. Usually only the dominant pair breeds and subordinate members help care for pups. The breeding female selects a den site such as an abandon aardvark hole and contours the underground chamber prior to giving birth. The average litter size is about 8 pups. When pups are about three weeks old, they appear above ground pug-nosed with black and white hair, and small ears that readily develop to oversized proportions. Yellow markings begin to appear at four weeks. Babysitters keep an eye on them while other family members hunt and return to the den to regurgitate food. Pups are moved to different dens during the season. When pups are around 1012 weeks old, packs resume their nomadic way of life. By the time the pups are about 4 months old, as shown here, they are already familiar with what is expected of them as members of the pack.

Four-month old pups


Although wild dogs will hunt at night during certain phases of the moon, they are primarily crepuscular—resting during the day and hunting in the early morning and evening. They are one of Africa's most successful hunters, a fact that has been attributed largely to their high degree of cooperation. During chases, wild dogs can attain speeds up to 60 km/h and are well adapted to deal with the body heat generated. In more enclosed habitat, where wild dogs are more commonly found, packs tend to split into groups during hunts, with individuals taking down prey, and then leaving it to bring back other pack members to feed. Unlike African lions, pups are the first to eat. Spotted hyenas sometimes follow wild dogs on hunts and try to steal food. Prey preferences vary regionally.

Wild dogs hunting
The African wild dog has been classifed among the most social of all canids. The study of vocal communication has lagged behind other scientific concerns in this socially complex carnivore. Its vocal repertoire is one of the most complex in Canidae, with some sounds unique to the species. The mixing of different sound types is also found in this species and is used to express ambivalence. Vocalizations provide a useful window on larger patterns of behavior, particularly among social canids. Short-range vocal communication accompanies many social interactions and appears to play an important role in intra- and interpack dynamics, and in forming and maintaining social bonds between pack members. Depending upon the motivational state and level of arousal of pack members, sounds issued by individuals can give rise to cascading group effects.

Preceding a hunt, pack members often rally in a greeting ceremony. 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."

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Wild dogs hunt primarily in the early morning or at dusk. When filtering through bush in search of prey, pack members frequently become separated and sometimes call to reunite. Long distance contact calls are common in canids and assume the form of either pulsed trains or long acoustic streams. Wild dogs issue the former kind of call. These sounds known as "hoos" are low-pitched and short, and given in bouts of varying length and intensity. They are delivered with the head held slightly lower than the shoulders, a gaping mouth, and often on the run. In contrast, wolves howl. These latter sounds are issued in long acoustic streams by lifting the muzzle while stationary.

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