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African Wild Dogs Vote on Crucial Pack Issues by Sneezing

Democracy is a blessing.

An African wild dog pack at uMkhuze Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
An African wild dog pack at uMkhuze Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Derek Keats/CC 2.0

When faced with a group decision, African wild dogs can’t fill out a ballot or raise a hand (paw). But they can sneeze. And that, scientists reported Tuesday, is how they seem to decide important matters, like whether it’s time for the group to head off. Other animals may voice their views in similar situations through grunting (monkeys), screeching (meerkats), or buzzing (bees, unsurprisingly).

But this seems to be the first recorded incidence of animals using sneezing as a means of communication in this way. An international team working at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust observed this democratic behavior over a period of months in 2014 and 2015, and recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Within a group of dogs, one or two alphas tend to lead the pack, in the same way that human politicians shape a country’s path. Also like politicians, lead dogs hold “rallies,” or “high energy greeting ceremonies,” ahead of some collective decision. If they’re successful, the pack will head off into the sunset. If they aren’t, they’ll stay where they are. But a good indicator of which way it’s likely to go is how the pack sneezes. Dog parliamentary procedure seems a little looser than the human equivalent (sometimes). Each member can sneeze as much as it likes to get a point across, and some votes are worth more than others. In the end, the achoos have it.

African wild dogs are particularly social and particularly rare animals who live in permanent packs of up to 27 canines. The structure is complicated, with separate, intricate dominance hierarchies for males and females. These dictate who breeds with whom, and who may be cast out of the pack and into a new one—usually to prevent inbreeding. It’s unsurprising that they have a way to make group decisions, researchers say. “Their ‘open social system’ is defined by pervasive cooperation,” the article notes. But the manner of doing it seems surprisingly on the nose.