African wild dogs make group decisions through versatile voting system

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Have you ever been with a group of friends trying to decide what to do? It’s not always easy coming to a decision, because not everyone in the group always feels like doing the same thing. Sometimes, a really outgoing member of the group convinces just a few other members to do something, and the rest of the group goes along. But other times, especially when the outgoing members of the group are kind of quiet, it can take a while for enough people in the group to finally agree on something.

Well, as it turns out, it’s similar with African wild dogs. African wild dogs live across sub-Saharan Africa in savannas and arid areas, in packs containing pups, juveniles and adults, led by a dominant male and female adult. Dominant individuals control many things in the pack, including mating and the care of pups. But when it comes to making decisions about leaving a resting area — to go on a hunt, for example — decision-making is a little more flexible.

African wild dogs decide whether to stay or go by voting. They don’t vote by casting a ballot, or raising a hand (paw?), but instead vote using a sound, an abrupt exhale, a little like a sneeze. How many votes it takes to decide to go depends on who starts the sneezing. If a dominant individual sneezes first, then it only takes a few more sneezes by the rest of the dogs for the group to rally and go. If a different (non-dominant) individual sneezes first, the group can still decide to go, but it takes many more sneezes by other group members to make this happen.

Some flexibility in decision-making processes can be useful. Even when a group has leaders, leaders may not always take action, or they may not understand what the rest of the group really needs or wants. Flexibility allows leaders to be overruled when enough other members of a group agree on a different course of action.

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References

“We also find an interaction between total sneezes and initiator [dominance]…in rallies… indicating that the number of sneezes required to initiate a collective movement differed according to the dominance of individuals involved in the rally. Specifically, we found that the likelihood of rally success increases with the dominance of the initiator… with lower-ranking initiators requiring more sneezes in the rally for it to be successful….” (Walker et al. 2017: 5)

Journal article
Sneeze to leave: African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) use variable quorum thresholds facilitated by sneezes in collective decisions. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.Walker RH, King AJ, McNutt JW, Jordan NR.

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