African Wild Dogs Cast a Vote by Sneezing

Derek Keats, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Derek Keats, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 / Derek Keats, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Animals may not be able to talk it out or cast ballots when making important group decisions, but that doesn't mean they don't have their own ways of communicating. Take African wild dogs: Before mobilizing to hunt, the animals reach a consensus by sneezing, according to observations from researchers.

As The New York Times reports, the new theory appears in a paper published by British, Australian, and American scientists in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Their data is based on packs of African wild dogs they studied in Botswana. The carnivores hunt in groups of six to 20, and teamwork is essential when taking down large prey like wildebeests. Hunts begin when one pack member starts rousing or "rallying" other dogs who are either sleeping or relaxing. Sometimes this works, and the whole team gets excited and sets off in search of food. But often it doesn't, and instead of staying energized, the pack settles down and resumes its rest.

The researchers wanted to know how African wild dogs choose when to act on a call to hunt and when to stay put. After observing them closely, the paper's lead author, Neil R. Jordan of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, suspected the deciding factor may be sneezes.

"Preliminary observations during rallies indicated that audible, abrupt exhalations of air through the nose, ‘sneezes,' appeared to be frequent during rallies and may serve as a pre-departure cue or signal," the paper reads.

The hard data the team gathered supports this theory. The more dogs that sneeze while assembling, the more likely the whole pack will actually go through with the hunt. This pattern changed when the dog starting the rally was a dominant member of the pack; in this case fewer sneezes from others were needed to initiate the hunt, indicating that the animals' voting system isn't 100 percent democratic.

Unlike human sneezes, African wild dog sneezes are less of a build-up and release than a forceful puff through the nose. It's possible that these sneezes are a voluntary means of communication rather than a spontaneous bodily function, but scientists don't know for sure. Another common theory is that canines sneeze when they're excited, which is something pet owners can observe in their dogs at home. But the jury's out on whether Fido sneezes when he's ready to hunt like his wild dog cousins.

[h/t The New York Times]