The African Wild Dog

(Lycaon pictus)

by Jay Sharp

Painted Dogs drinking, Perth Zoo, 2009.
African wild dogs drinking water at the Perth Zoo.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Helenbella, 2009.

The African wild dog – a dedicated pack and family member and a ferocious and efficient predator – holds a distinctive place among the Canidae and, in fact, among most social mammals. The animal stands apart as a result of certain physical characteristics, pack structure, social interactions and life cycle.

Characteristics of the African Wild Dog

The African wild dog belongs to the true dog family, which includes the domestic dog, the wolf, the coyote, the fox, the dingo and the jackal. Each African wild dog – leggy, tall and slender, somewhat like a greyhound – bears a unique and decorative coat, which has spawned numerous other common names, for instance, painted dog, tricolored dog, spotted dog, painted wolf or ornate wolf.

It is distinguished as a species by the following features:

  • Adult Size and Weight: Typically, the adult stands about 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder; measures about 3 ½ to 5 1/2 feet in length, including its 1- to 1 1/2-foot-long tail; and weighs about 40 to 75 pounds. The male is usually slightly larger than the female.
  • Coat and Color: The African wild dog has a shaggy and patchy black, white and reddish brown or tan coat and a white-plumed tail. The coloration helps camouflage the animal from its predators as well as its prey.
  • Head and Face: The dog has a large head, somewhat like a hyena, and it has large rounded ears, which enhance hearing and help cool the dog. As the Honolulu Zoo says, it has a black muzzle and a black-lined forehead. The African wild dog, with teeth designed for shearing and tearing, has the most powerful bite for its size of all the canines.
  • Body, Legs and Paws: With its lanky body and long legs, the animal is built for speed, endurance and quickness. It can run at a sustained speed of more than 35 miles per hour for several miles. A pack closes swiftly on a kill, feeding before scavengers can move in. Oddly, unlike the other canines, the dog has no dew claws on its front legs.
  • Senses: Gifted with acute senses, the African wild dog capitalizes on its sense of smell to identify fellow pack members and detect prey; its sense of sight to home in on prey; and its sense of hearing – augmented by the large ears – to facilitate pack communication, signal danger and discover prey.
  • Communication: Exceptionally vocal, the pack chirps and twitters in celebratory greeting at the beginning of the day; issues a bell-like "hoo" to locate lost pack members, especially pups and juveniles; and produces high pitched squeaks and yelps to coordinate pack movements during a hunt. Pack mates use their large ears almost like semaphore flags to communicate with each other during the hunt.

Distribution and Habitat

Within memory, the African wild dog ranged across most parts of Africa south of the Sahara Desert often in packs of 100 or more. Today, according to the Kalahari Predator Conservation, the animal, its numbers plunging, occupies only a few of the Sub-Saharan countries, usually in wildlife reservations and parklands and typically in packs of no more than 5 to 20 individuals. It favors the African savannahs—open grassy plains with scattered trees. It avoids the desert and woodlands. Continual wanderers, a pack may cover hundreds of square miles, with its range often overlapping that of other packs.

Diet

Strictly carnivorous, the African wild dog prefers medium-sized prey such as gazelles and antelopes but it will also take larger animals such as zebras and wildebeests as well as smaller ones such as rodents and birds. It may occasionally take livestock, incurring the enmity of farmers. It only rarely eats carrion or even returns to earlier kills.

Behavior and Life Cycle

A monogamous alpha male and female pair rules a pack. They produce the only litters of pups, prohibit other pairs from reproducing, control movements of the group, and lead hunts by the pack. Unlike other social mammals, it is the females – not the males! – that leave the birth pack, sometimes with sisters, at about one to two years of age to join other packs. Males remain behind, with parents and siblings, often helping tend and feed the young.

The dog begins every day with a celebration of life, preparatory to the early morning hunt. The San Diego Zoo reports that the animals "fill the morning air with excited chirps and twitters… They run shoulder to shoulder and then pause to leap over and dive under each other. The dogs appear to 'kiss' one another, licking and poking at the corners of each other's mouths."

The pack hunts twice every day, usually at dawn and at twilight. Relentless, it hunts in relays, running prey to exhaustion. With unbridled savagery, the alpha pair attacks the hind legs. Other larger dogs rip at the lips and snout. Other pack members disembowel the prey. In a feeding frenzy, the pack may begin to tear away flesh to eat before the prey even dies. With prey down, older dogs will stand back to allow juvenile pack members to feed first, guarding the youngsters from would-be predators. Pack members, says National Geographic, may also share food with injured or sick pack mates. The African wild dog succeeds in killing its prey 80% to 90% of the time. By contrast, the African lion may succeed in killing its prey only a third of the time.

The alpha pair usually mates, in a very brief encounter, sometime between late winter and early summer. About 10 weeks later, usually in a den dug then abandoned by another animal, the mother delivers about 5 to 8 pups, although, if physically large, she may deliver as many as 20 or 21—the largest litter size of any of the dog species. Although the mother nurses her pups, the entire pack participates in caring for the young, feeding, guarding and defending them. The pups, weaned after about 10 weeks, leave the den area after about 3 months to begin learning the skills of running and hunting with the pack. In spite of the care, two thirds of the pups may be lost to predation and disease. A pup that does reach maturity, at about 12 to 18 months in age, may live 9 to 10 years.

Perils

The African wild dog has been listed as "endangered" – threatened by extinction – by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It numbers no more than a few thousand in the wild–about one percent of its historic population. The population has been decimated by human infringement in its traditional range, local extermination by livestock owners, competition with other predators, and exposure to viral domestic animal diseases.

Interesting Facts

Studies indicate that the African wild dogs do not follow their hunting tactics by instinct, but rather, they learn them—lessons passed from generation to generation.

According to the Kalahari Predator Conservation, the dogs usually hunt during the day so they can avoid competition with those predators – for instance, that lions – that usually hunt during the night.

After a kill, the hunters of the pack return to a den to regurgitate meat to feed to the alpha mother dog and her pups as well as any old, crippled and sick dogs.

An adult dog may search for a pup or a juvenile for days, issuing the "hoo" call and listening for a reply. If successful in its search, the adult will return the young dog to the pack.

Sources: San Diego Zoo, Honolulu Zoo, Kalahari Predator Conservation, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Kalahari Predator Conservation

 

 

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