African dogs “vote” on group decisions by SNEEZING

We put someone in a position of power based on how trustworthy and capable we think they are. We do this by by holding an electoral voting process, whose intricacies we would not delve into.

How about animals? How do they reach a consensus as to who to put in power? According to a study that conducted investigations into free-ranging African wild dog packs in Botswana, one way of doing that is by sneezing.

African wild dogs are characterized by their affinity for dominant-directed group living and get involved in typical social rallies: high energy greeting ceremonies that take place before collective movements.

According to Neil Jordan of the University of South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science, who initiated a research into African dogs’ social setup, the dogs would sneeze a lot before preparing to run off to hunt as a pack.

We recorded details of 68 social rallies from five African wild dog packs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and couldn’t quite believe it when our analyses confirmed our suspicions. 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,” Jordan said.

Upon observation of the dogs, the research team surmised that if the dominant dogs sneezed, then only a few more sneezes needed to occur for the rally to take place. If the dominant dogs did not sneeze, then there still need to be 10 or more sneezes before the rally could happen.

The sneezes act as a type of quorum, and the sneezes have to reach a certain threshold before the group changes activity,” Swansea University researcher Andrew King said.

Unlike the one-person, one-vote rules of the human electoral system, members of the pack were not limited to one sneeze. However, if a dominant pack member started a rally, fewer sneezes are needed for the pack to get going, thus pointing to what Brown University undergraduate research technician Reena H. Walker calls the compromise “between dominance and democracy”.

According to Walker, the quality of the sneeze that the wild dogs make is different from that of the human sneeze, as it is an “audible, rapid forced exhalation through the nose”. Scientists also are not sure whether the movement is something that the dogs make of their own accord, or if the sneeze happens involuntarily, much in the same way that a human sneeze does.

However, to be safe, Walker said you should count the number of sneezes that the pack makes to know if it is moving towards a different direction or not yet. (Related: Animals are able to judge whether something is fair or not.)

The hierarchy within African wild dog packs is characterized by priority of access to prey or animal carcasses – the dominant pair and their pups (less than one year) have first access to kills; and then the yearlings, which are members of the pack between the ages of one and two; and then lastly, subdominant adults, which are members of the pack that are more than two years old.

Quorum behavior, in which a minimum number of votes is needed before a group of animals decides on a particular order of business, has also been seen in honeybees, meerkats, mountain gorillas, and white-faced capuchin monkeys.

To be specific, three meerkats (Suricata suricatta) making “moving calls” are needed for the whole group to go to a new foraging patch; honeybees (Apis mellifera) require “piping signals”; and “trills” are needed in white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) for collective departures to happen.

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