African wild dogs make group decisions through versatile voting system


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.


The Strategy

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.


The Potential

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.

Wild dogs prepare to head out on a hunt.
Image: Bart Swanson / CC BY SA - Creative Commons Attribution + ShareAlike

Wild dogs prepare to head out on a hunt.

An African wild dog (Lycaon pictus pictus) in Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa.
Image: Charles J Sharp / CC BY SA - Creative Commons Attribution + ShareAlike

An African wild dog (Lycaon pictus pictus) in Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa.

Last Updated July 2, 2020