The African wild dog is sometimes called the African painted dog or painted hunting dog. Its scientific name, Lycaon pictus (Greek and Latin) means “painted wolf”. Highly endangered, only an estimated 5,500 – 6,500 individuals survive in 39 sub populations across Africa. The largest population is found in the Chobe and Moremi in Botswana, and in the Kruger National Park the dogs have also found a stronghold.
- Not a dog. Not a wolf.
The African wild dog is not a dog, nor is it a wolf (or a hyena or a jackal). It is the only living descendent of the extinct Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides of the Early Pleistocene epoch (1.8 - 2.6 million years ago) and the common ancestor of wolves and wild dogs existed before this time. Because of a lack of fossil records, scientists are not really sure and more than one proposal for the evolution of canids is proposed. Its closest living relative is the Dhole, or Asian wild dog, of Southern and Southeast Asia.
- Ou viertoon
With 4 digits (toes) on their forelimbs – the dewclaw of wolves, dogs and other canids are absent – wild dogs are unique in this regard. Their highly individual black, orange, yellow and white markings, large radar-dish-like ears and the shearing mechanism of their pre-molar teeth are also distinctive.
- The stuff of legends
The San people revered the African wild dog as the ultimate hunter – even smearing wild dog bodily fluids on their feet before a hunt, believing that it will give them the animal’s boldness, endurance and agility. Shamans and medicine men can transform themselves into wild dogs and folklore had it that the moon cursed the insolent hare to be forever hunted by the African wild dog in the legend of the Origin of death.
- Cum laude carnivore
With their complex and super coordinated teamwork structure, wild dogs are the most efficient hunters of the apex predators by a country mile: 85% of their hunts result in a kill, compared to the mere 18% of lions and 35% of leopards. Once an impala is in the pack’s sights, the dinner bell is sure to ring.
- Africa’s Got Talent
African wild dogs’ vocalisation abilities go well beyond that of domestic dogs. They greet each other with twittering and whining sounds, use an owl-like “hoo” call to keep contact when out of sight of each other and a myriad of other howls and barks. A pack in the Okavango Delta has been observed “voting to go on a hunt with sneezes” – when the dominant pair sneezes, the pack will depart on the hunt, but if another dog sneezes first and enough other dogs sneeze too, the pack will also depart! Yet, when searching for prey and feeding, they are almost completely silent.
- Family values
The social structure of a wild dog pack is a fascinating, almost altruistic system. The monogamous alpha pair is the only breeding pair in a pack is and will sometimes even adopt the 'oopsie' litter of another pair. When a litter is born, they take priority over even the alphas and all males and females of the pack will babysit and feed the pups. When they are old enough to tag long during the hunt, they eat first at the kill. If the kill is not large enough to feed the whole pack, they simply hunt again immediately. Incredibly, wild dogs never fight amongst themselves over food (another unique carnivore trait) and will take care of sick, elderly or injured members of the pack like they would pups.
- Mommy’s boys
Uniquely among social carnivores, it is the females that leave the pack to travel long distances to find a mate once they become sexually mature. The males remain with the pack they are born into.
- Victims of piracy
Hyenas and lions are notorious thieves of African wild dog kills. Wild dogs will rarely defend their kills against these criminals (they are way too smart) except if they have the numbers to challenge a would-be pirate, and would rather just abandon the meal and hunt again. Persecution by humans (mostly livestock farmers) and loss of habitat are the reasons wild dogs are endangered.
- Ain't never going to be called Rover or Fifi
Because African wild dogs are not genetically compatible with any other canid, the selective breeding that resulted in domestic dogs is not possible. They are naturally distrusting of any animal outside of their pack and they also completely lack the genetic traits of impulsive curiosity and opportunism (allowing humans to touch them) that allowed humans to amplify these traits to create domestic dog breeds.
The information if this article is collated from articles by Wikipedia, National Geographic, WWF, Africa Geographic and African Wildlife Foundation. Photo credits are IngImage, Mpala Live, Wikipedia and KrugerParkSA.com