Wild dog packs count sneezes to vote democratically

Power couple at rest.
Power couple at rest.
Image: Reena Walker
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Wild dogs aren’t totally wild, it turns out. As in any society, there are complex rules in their packs, plus powerful types who disproportionately influence the group. Yet the will of the many does at times prevail.

A new paper in the journal Proceedings of Royal Society B reveals that when wild dogs in Botswana sneeze, they aren’t merely clearing their nasal passages. They are actually voting on whether to go hunting, and some dogs are especially successful at moving the group with just a few sneezes.

Neil Jordan of the New South Wales University in Australia Center for Ecosystem Science initiated the study because he’d noticed in previous research that the dogs sneezed before leaving for a hunt. Jordan wondered if the sneezes were some form of communication. In an effort to understand the collective behavior, his team tracked five wild-dog packs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and recorded and analyzed the behaviors displayed at 68 different social rallies over 11 months.

They collared at least one member of each pack to track the groups’ movements and observed the animals from vehicles, recording the sneezing behavior for later analysis. Jordan was surprised to find he was right: pack members were communicating. Dogs sneezed to indicate it was time to hunt. If others sneezed too, this indicated agreement and the group would leave.

“We…couldn’t quite believe it when our analyses confirmed our suspicions,” Jordan said in a statement. “The more sneezes that occurred, the more likely it was that the pack moved off and started hunting. The sneeze acts like a type of voting system.”

Still, not all sneezes were equal.  Any adult pack member might initiate an outing with a sneeze, but dominant dogs got the pack moving faster. ”We found that when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off,” explains researcher Reena Walker of Brown University, who was also involved in the study. If the dominant pair didn’t engage in the group communication, more sneezes—about 10—were needed before the pack would agree to go hunting.

The researchers found that not all social rallies resulted in group movement, though they don’t yet know why that might be. They did discover that any time there were three or more sneezes, a group departure was likely. The study concludes:

The number of sneezes needed for a rally to succeed and reach a quorum was lower when dominant individuals initiated rallies, suggesting that dominant participation increases the likelihood of a rally’s success, but is not a prerequisite. As such, the ‘will of the group’ may override dominant preferences when the consensus of subordinates is sufficiently great.

This surprising find in wild dogs is perhaps heartening news for us members of human society. Certain of our pack members are disproportionately powerful, for better or worse, yet the will of the many still at times prevails.