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African wild dogs use sneezing as a democratic voting system

Sneezing may be part of a democratic voting system in endangered African wild dogs, according to a new study.

African wild dogs in Botswana were monitored by an international team working at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust. Dr. Neil Jordan from the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science in Sydney, Australia, and the study’s lead author, noticed how the dogs gathered together in social rallies before going off to hunt again. During these rallies, Jordan also noticed the dogs sneezing.

“I wanted to better understand this collective behavior, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go,” said Jordan.

Jordan and his research team theorized that the sneezing was then used as a sort of voting system, where more sneezes meant that the majority of pack agreed it was time to head out and hunt again. Fewer sneezes among the group meant that the pack wasn’t ready yet.

The researchers observed and recorded 68 social rallies from five different African wild dog packs in Botswana. There was an increase in sneezes among the groups just before the dogs would head off to hunt, indicating that sneezing was used as a sort of communication.

“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,” said Jordan.

Pack hierarchy also factored into the voting process among the dogs, as not all votes had the same weight.

“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. However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed – approximately 10 – before the pack would move off,” said Reena Walker from Brown University, first author of the study.

African wild dogs are not the only pack animals to engage in these sort of social behaviors, but the sneezing voting system sheds new light on different forms of communication in animals.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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