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Painted dogs – the laws of Dogtown

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

African wild dogs have been listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List for 30 years now, and yet their numbers are still falling.

Otherwise known as painted dogs, these visually inspiring characters are a storyteller’s dream, with their tricolour coats and ears uncanny to those of a Disney’s cartoon mouse. Their population, however, has declined across sub-Saharan Africa from approximately 600,000 three decades ago to just 6,600 individuals alive today. Having disappeared from much of their historical range due to human encroachment and persecution, the last remaining painted dog subpopulations are few and far between.

Painted dog packs have highly complex social structures with separate dominance hierarchies for males and females, cooperative breeding systems, and nuanced forms of communication not yet fully understood by science. As a hypercarnivorous species, they help to regulate ungulate populations and in doing so are vital to the health of Africa’s savannah habitat, a priority for the conservation of the continent’s biodiversity.

Painted dogs cooperative breeding

Cooperative breeding is the care of offspring shared amongst group members. This social system is seen in approximately eight percent of bird species, as well as in meerkats, red wolves, and Arctic foxes.

In painted dog packs, reproduction is monopolised by the alpha male and female (the breeding pair) who then share the duties of offspring care with yearlings and sub-dominant adults (helpers). Since they show the highest energetic costs of gestation of all group-living carnivores and their population dynamics are most affected by pup survival, the altruism of cooperative breeding is a very important and necessary strategy for maintaining the biological fitness of the pack.

The alpha pair, as well as producing offspring, are seen defending the den from predators more often than helpers and are essential in alleviating conflict within the group. Helpers regurgitate food for the denning female and her pups, and after pups are weaned at around three months the helpers will begin leading them to fresh kills where the young have priority access to the carcass.

Interestingly, this would seem to be to the helper’s detriment as they are then the last allowed to feed on the kill, however, there are advantages of being complicit in cooperative breeding. Although helpers are not directly related to offspring, packs are mostly comprised of closely related kin, and so helpers do benefit from offspring survival in that it preserves their genetic lineage to some extent. Another advantage to be gained by helpers is that by increasing offspring survival they help to increase pack size, and larger packs have been proven to be more successful hunters.

Painted dog pack sizes

Smaller packs have the potential to become stuck in what has been described as a ‘poverty trap,’ whereby lower hunting success coupled with smaller litters leads to greater vulnerability to local extirpation and species extinction. Large packs exhibit a greater ability to persist and so this must be considered in painted dog conservation programmes.

Hunting and territory overlap.

Preying on a wide range of animals from hare to wildebeest, painted dogs consume more meat per day relative to their own size than any other carnivore. To satisfy their incomparable hunger packs have extremely well-coordinated methods for predation. Much like their breeding strategy painted dogs are cooperative hunters, directed by a dominant member who leads the chase whilst the rest of the hunting pack cut off potential escape routes and distract the prey.

The most impressive aspect of a painted dog hunt, however, is not the hunt itself but its initiation.

Using abrupt exhalations of air through the nose – sounding similar to a sneeze – a quorum ‘vote’ on whether or not to depart from their resting site and search for prey. Higher ranking individuals such as the breeding pair require less sneezes to initiate a hunt – around three – whilst lower ranking sub-dominant adults require at least 10. This voting system is predictable and a driven decision-making process, indicating a high degree of intelligence. Whilst the effectiveness of painted dog’s use of sneezing as a predeparture cue is unique and warrants special interest, such efficient communication and skewed democracy in canids is not uncommon and has been seen in golden jackals, coyotes, and foxes.

Communication between painted dogs does not only occur between pack members, but also between packs. Painted dog territories are large – typically ranging from 200-900 km2 – and dominant dogs demarcate their pack’s territory through scent-marking and ‘hoo-calls’. However, territories are not exclusive and often overlap. At around two years old subordinates emigrate in search of unrelated groups with which to form their own packs. They tend to establish territories bordering natal packs, and these dyads are more likely to overlap extensively. Decide for yourself whether or not you would want your whole extended family living in the house next door, but this seems to serve good purpose for painted dog packs; since relatives share a relatively high proportion of their genes, closely related packs are likely to behave more altruistically towards each other and represent less of a threat than an unrelated pack.

Studies have shown that closely related packs result in higher painted dog population densities, warranting the focus of conservation efforts.

Painted dog conservation.

All threats to the existence of painted dogs stem from habitat loss and fragmentation. A lack of space has brought the dogs in closer competition with predators and other carnivores, such as lions and spotted hyenas, and thus being the smaller of the three, painted dogs have been pushed into rural communities where they take the brunt of human-wildlife conflict.

One of the leading causes of mortality amongst painted dogs is infectious disease, such as rabies. Domestic dog populations serve as widespread reservoirs of rabies infection, and in 2014 a pack of 35 painted dogs in Botswana fell to just six individuals in two months following an attack by poachers’ dogs. Regular, targeted vaccinations of domestic dogs is seen as the most sustainable, practical, and cost-effective long-term solution to this problem where human encroachment and intersection is unpreventable.

Another issue facing Africa’s painted dogs is human persecution. As agriculture continues to dominate the planet’s landscapes, conflict between wildlife and rural farming communities increases. Painted dogs do not tend to shy away from an easy meal, and farmers resort to shooting or poisoning to protect their livestock. However, painted dogs only hunt livestock where densities of wild ungulates are very low, suggesting that it would be prudent to conserve wild ungulate populations and promote traditional livestock husbandry methods of enclosing livestock herds in bomas when unattended.

One promising in situ conservation strategy is to increase painted dog numbers through translocations and reintroductions. In South Africa, painted dog subpopulations are managed as a single metapopulation, which has been stable since the mid-1990s. Today, South Africa is one of the few countries with a growing painted dog population, despite not having enough space to sustain them. In order to bolster populations elsewhere in Africa, South African ecologists relocate newly formed packs into suitable areas where painted dogs have gone extinct.

The threats responsible for the African wild dog’s longstanding position on the IUCN Red List must be dealt with swiftly. Education of their ecosystem role and importance for tourism would go a long way, and we need to actively ensure that what habitat they have remaining is protected and worthy.

Written by: Linus Hiscox, studying MSc Global Biodiversity Health and Conservation at the University of Bristol and DSWF Programmes and Policy Intern.

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