African wild dogs sneeze to cast their votes, study finds

One of the world’s most endangered mammals uses an rudimentary (and highly unusual) brand of democracy when attempting to decide whether or not to go on a hunt: they come together in a social gathering and cast their votes by sneezing, according to newly-published research.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from Swansea University, the University of New South Wales and Brown University explained that African wild dogs held so-called “social rallies” and used sneezing as a “quorum” when deciding if they should hunt.

As BBC News reported on Wednesday, the study authors observed the behavior in wild dogs at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, recording the details of 68 individual gatherings and noticing that the higher number of sneezes there were, the more likely the pack was to hunt.

Previously, the British media outlet noted, experts believed that the creatures were sneezing just to clear their airways. However, the new research demonstrates that it serves as for the wild dogs to cast their vote in favor of resuming their pursuit of food following the gatherings, which came at the end of a brief rest period. Such behavior has never before been observed in a species.

“The dogs were sneezing while preparing to go,” Dr. Neil Jordan, senior author of the study as well as a research fellow at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, 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.”

Not all votes carry the same amount of weight, however

As the New York Times pointed out, other species use similar methods to express their desire to move on as a group – for example, gorillas use grunts and honeybees make a piping sound – but African wild dogs are the first species observed using sneezes as part of a democratic process.

The African wild dogs tended to hold their vote during the “social rallies,” which are energetic greeting periods that follow a rest period, Dr. Jordan and his colleagues said. However, they also found that some votes carried more weight when it came to the decision-making process.

“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,” explained first author Reena Walker, a zoologist at Brown University. “However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed – approximately 10 – before the pack would move off.”

“The sneezes act as a type of quorum, and the sneezes have to reach a certain threshold before the group changes activity,” added co-author Dr. Andrew King of Swansea University. “Quorums are also used by other social carnivores… but our finding that the quorum number of sneezes changes, based on who’s involved in the rally, indicates each dog’s vote is not equal.”


Image credit: Andrew King