Posts Tagged ‘painted wolf’

african wild dog dentition

These are the teeth of an African wild dog or painted wolf that has been tranquilized.

One thing you might notice is all the extra cutting edges around the carnassial teeth.  These extra blades make it easier for them to bite into the meat of their kills and bolt down the food quickly before lions and hyenas show up to rob them.

Dholes, the closest living relative of the African wild dog, also have similar carnassials, as does the bush dog. This feature evolved in parallel in bush dogs,  but for a while, they were often classified with the dhole and African wild dog.

We now know that the bush dog is within the “South American clade” of wild dogs. Its closest relative is the maned wolf.

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painted wolves

I’ve been watching Dynasties on BBC America, and I have been waiting until the series got to the African wild dog episode. African wild dogs, which the series calls “painted wolves” in light of a direct translation of their scientific name,  Lycaon pictus,  are critically endangered canids.  Only 6,600 of them exist in the wild, and the series hooked up with Painted Dog Conservation to follow the high drama of two packs living at the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

The story starts with a pack led by Tait. Tait is a ten-year-old breeding female, and she has over 200 descendants. One of these is Blacktip, the breeding female of growing pack, that now needs more territory to feed itself. Tait’s pack is in a pretty bad state.  Their numbers are small, and because the African wild dog range in the park is surrounded on two sides by lion and spotted hyenas, Blacktip’s pack drives Tait’s pack from its territory.

Tait’s family escapes to lion country, where they are forced to hunt impalas, choke down some bits of meat, and then run like hell when the lions eventually show up.  Blacktip’s pack lives very nicely, but they are forced to remain stationary while Blacktip nurses her pups.  When they get old enough to move, Blacktip leads her pack against her mother in lion country,  a campaign that will prove disastrous.

Spotted hyenas kill at least one pup, and lions almost off the rest of the litter. However, they are saved when a foolish African buffalo comes charging onto the scene.  The buffalo was unexpected,  but the lions hate buffalo more than they hate African wild dogs– and certainly prefer their meat.  So the lions kill the buffalo, and the pups are spared.

The campaign ends when a Nile crocodile catches one of Blacktip’s pups and drags it into the Zambezi. It is the most graphic scene in the whole episode. I could not help but feel for the poor wild dog as it died in the crocodile’s jaws. This is a horrible way to die.

After that campaign, Blacktip retreats to her old territory, and Tait’s pack is able to return to its old haunts. Just before we hear that they have returned, Sir David Attenborough narrates that Tait died at the hands of lions. She was too old to keep running.  Her mate refused to leave her side, and he dies at the hands of the lions. Surely, this scene had to have been witnessed, but it was probably too horrific to be shown as part of this documentary.

The film ends with Tait’s family hooking with some errant males. Their booming cries are hauntingly beautiful as the new males join up.  A new mated pair is being crowned, and Tait’s daughter Tammy becomes the new lead female. And Tait’s dynasty continues on.

This film shows many amazing hunting scenes. I’ve never before seen any footage of African wild dogs hunting baboons, a pretty dangerous undertaking.  Baboons are smart and strong and have massive canine teeth. But the dogs are able to cause such chaos in a baboon troop that some young ones do get left unattended in the melee.

In another hunt, Tait’s pack runs an impala into the Zambezi, where the crocodiles instantly devour it.  You almost feel the dogs’ pain as that impala leaps into the water. That good meat, now lost to the archosaurs.

In another scene, we see Tait’s tiny litter of only two pups that are almost instantly threatened by honey badgers.  One of Tait’s daughters flies into action and begins harrying the ratels to drive them off.

This film was such wonderful high drama. It was like the story of Exodus from the Old Testament, complete with its own Moses figure who never makes to the Promised Land, that mixes in with the story of Ernest Thompson’s Seton’s story about Old Lobo, the marauding wolf of the New Mexico ranges that dies because he will not abandon his mate.

And this story is fully true and documented before the rolling cameras.

Every time I watched those dogs run on their hunts, I thought how much they reminded me of sighthounds.  Their svelte frames seemed to glide across the plains, running hard and fast after the game. Dan Belkin famously compared the saluki’s running style to this species, and in watching their endurance runs, I have to agree.

I particularly have enjoyed the way this series has made a conservation message part of the documentaries. In this one, the final part has Sir David Attenborough and the wild dog trackers standing and sitting among the packs. They tell us of the real problems facing these dogs. They need big territories to hunt their game, but most of the painted wolves don’t live in national parks. Livestock ranchers and pastoralists shoot and poison the dogs, even if they have legal protections. Zimbabwe has set up corridors for wildlife that allow travel between parks, but most African countries that have these dogs have not. So they must constantly run a gauntlet of often hostile humanity as they try to survive at the edge of lion and hyena territories.

The painted wolf, the painted dog, the African wild dog, or the Cape hunting dog are all names that we use for this animal. I prefer “painted wolf,” but I realize that no one knows what I’m talking about when I use that term. I hope that this film popularizes that name a bit more. The name “African wild dog” connotes something feral, something that we can just kill off and not consider more deeply.

Lycaon pictus, the painted wolf, has a far more noble connotation. No, they aren’t as magnificent as lions, but in their intense social behavior, we surely must see ourselves. Like us, they evolved in Africa as a distant running predators, and we probably were intense competitors for he same sorts of antelope.  Our kind wound up taking over the whole world. Theirs remained in Africa, and now our kind has come quite close to wiping them off the face of the earth.

Films like this episode of Dynasties fully reveal the plight of these amazing creatures. They are pack-hunting wolves evolved in parallel on the great continent of Africa, and we are only now realizing their marvelous ways.











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The little AWD puppy robot is so cute!

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From NBC:

A young boy fell into an African painted dog [African wild dog or painted wolf] exhibit at a Pittsburgh zoo and was mauled to death by the wild animals, zoo officials said.

The child, about 3 years old, was with his mother visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium when he somehow fell from a 14-foot-high observation deck into the exhibit at about 11:45 a.m. He was immediately attacked by several dogs and died, zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker said.

The zoo quickly moved visitors into buildings as animal keepers tried to coax the dogs into an off-exhibit area. Many of the 11 dogs in the exhibit moved away immediately, and several others were scared away from the child by the zookeepers. A remaining dog would not leave the child, and a Pittsburgh police officer shot the animal.

It’s a pretty sad story.

African wild dogs don’t normally attack people, but these are zoo animals that are in very unnatural conditions.

A little kid falling into the exhibit could stimulate a predatory response, as it likely could from under-socialized packs of domestic dogs.




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African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus or Canis pictus)  are in a lot of trouble.

They once ranged over much of Sub-Saharan Africa, where they were part of an extensive guild of large Carnivorans that targeted the large herds of ungulates that once ranged over this part of the continent.

With European colonization, these animals were deemed pests. They were thought to be livestock killers of the worst sort, and it was also thought that they regularly preyed upon people– a claim for which there is very little evidence.

It was also assumed that these creatures were nothing more than feral domestic dogs.  The old name for this animal was Cape hunting dog, a name that sort of implies that these dogs were nothing more than feral hunting dogs that had run off from native settlements.

But even after colonization ended, Africa’s human development challenges mean that these animals can now only exist in fewer and fewer places.  The current populations of this species are also highly fragmented, which means the historic gene flow that once occurred over a broad swathe of territory no longer happens.

This gene flow occurs rather unusually in this species. African wild dog males almost never leave their natal packs.

However, bitches do leave within between the first and third year of life. There is a lot more competition for mates with bitches in this species than with dogs. With so much competition for mates, the younger females usually just leave to find their own mates in other packs. Like wolves, only a single female normally breeds, and if a second female breeds, it’s not unusual for the main breeding female to steal her pups and raise them in her den.  So if a bitch wants to raise her own litter, she’s got to leave.

Bitch dispersal prevents inbreeding in African wild dogs, but because they no longer can disperse over larger distances, the populations within an area are becoming more related over time.

Like many wild canids, African wild dogs exhibit inbreeding avoidance behavior.  Dogs from the same pack very rarely will mate with close kin from the same natal pack.

A recent study that was published PLoS ONE found that African wild dogs also won’t mate with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, or grandparents from the same natal pack, even if they encounter each other several years later. In the South African study stample, 0nly a single breeding pair was confirmed to have been between two third order or closer relatives.

With this amount of inbreeding avoidance, the authors looked at computer models to see how long it would take such a population to become extinct solely upon the basis of its inbreeding avoidance behavior. Populations that avoided incestuous breedings between a parent and siblings and between siblings were estimated to become extinct in 63 years. Those that avoided  mating with second order relatives were estimated to become extinct within 37 years, and those that avoided third order relatives were estimated to go extinct within 19 years.

With African wild dog existing in such fragmented populations, their extreme inbreeding avoidance behavior may very well spell doom for them.

Inbreeding avoidance has been a very useful for wild dogs as they have evolved. With the exception of the island foxes and domestic dogs, inbreeding is not a frequent occurrence among members of Canidae, and it has contributed to greater genetic diversity in many wild dog populations than might otherwise be assumed.

But there is also a paradox to this inbreeding avoidance.

If animals have such a resistance to doing so, they are unlikely to do so should their numbers drop significantly and the only available mates be close relatives.

And this can kill them off far more rapidly than the effects of an inbreeding depression.

Further, we know that lots of wild Carnivons have survived extreme genetic bottlenecks.

Cheetahs are the textbook example. Their population experienced a massive crash about 10,000 years ago, losing over 90 percent of their genetic variability.  Cheetahs were able to survive this bottleneck and were thriving until about a 150 years ago.

Northern elephant seals are another example  of a Carnivoran surviving an extreme genetic bottleneck.  Whalers would stop by the seals’ breeding beaches to augment their cargo, and by the end of the nineteenth century, there may have been as few as 20 northern elephant seals left.  There are now 100,000 of them, and there is no evidence of any deleterious effects of inbreeding on the population, though they may be more susceptible to disease, pollution, and climate change issues.  Of course, northern elephant seals harem breed, and only a few males of the species wind up siring the pups at any given time– a kind of natural popular sire effect. It’s very likely that elephant seals within the same populations were always in some way related, and because the animals had evolved this type of breeding system, they may have evolved a certain amount of inbreeding tolerance that hasn’t been observed in any species of dog, which almost universally reproduce within a bonded pair.

Inbreeding avoidance behaviors do keep populations genetically diverse.

But it can be an Achilles’ heel.

If a population is so adverse to inbreeding, it won’t be able to continue on if the only possible mated pairs are relatives.

Inbreeding avoidance behavior can be a boon to the long-term survival of a species.

But it can also be a great hindrance.

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It is amazing how similar their behavior and mannerisms are to domestic dogs, even though they are more distantly related to domestic dogs than we are to chimpanzees

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The lone wild dog of Mombo in Botswana feeds some black-backed jackal puppies.

Wild dogs and jackals feed their pups through regurgitating what they’ve eaten.

Under normal conditions, these jackal pups would be doomed if a wild dog showed up at their den.  African wild dogs normally kill black-backed jackals and their pups. This one found herself without a pack of her own species, so she settled with joining up with a pack   of a distantly related species.

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Lycaon pictus. It is commonly called the African wild dog or Cape hunting dog. Such a name suggests a feral domestic dog, which it most definitely is not. It definitely needs a name change if it is going to survive.

Lycaon pictus has an image problem.

But most of it seems to be in the name.

I remember hearing these animals called “Cape hunting dogs,” and some old nature documentaries treated them as if they were some sort of feral dog.

In colonial texts, I always see them referenced in this fashion. I remember reading The Man-eaters of Tsavo by Col. Patterson, and his discussion of the species is that they are something like a dingo. I also remember reading texts that discuss Rhodesian [sic] Ridgeback histories, and the  “Cape hunting dog” is listed as an ancestor. (I think they mean something else, but the terms are so nebulous that people often wind up mixing up African feral dogs with “African wild dogs.” It’s enough to confuse modern researchers.)

Because these animals have a range that extends beyond southern Africa, it became common to call these animals “African wild dogs.”

Another bad name.

Not only are there lots of other real African wild dogs (three species of jackal, the Ethiopian wolf, and several foxes), these animals are not related to any of the feral dogs.  One of my biggest complaints in Stanley Coren’s Intelligence of Dogs is that he thought this species could have contributed to several domestic dog breeds. The name is both generic and misleading at the same time.

You see, Lycaon pictus is a relative of the interbreeding and interfertile species in the genus canis, but it’s not that closely related to them. It is more closely related to those interfertile species than the two species of “Africa-only” jackals (the black-backed and the side-striped).

Here’s the dog family phylogenetic tree:

(Image comes from this study)

Ethiopian wolves and golden jackals are the most distant relatives to Canis lupus (which include dogs, New Guinea singing dogs, dingoes, and wolves) with which it can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

See where “African wild dogs” are on that tree?

They are too distantly related to interbreed with domestic dogs or wolves.

But calling them “African wild dogs” suggests that they are related to dogs. It even suggests, if one gets sloppy enough, that these animalss represent a form of feral African dog.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but Lycaon pictus is an endangered species. The IUCN lists them as endangered, and the populations that do exist are fragmented. The land they live on is needed for people to raise crops and graze livestock.

When people encroach on Lycaon pictus’s habitat they unleash several threats.  One of these is domestic dogs, who are carriers of canine diseases.

People also shoot, trap, and poison them.

In the old days they were shot to protect game herds. The same rationale was used in the early days of the conservation movement to kill off wolves in America’s nation parks. Kill of the predators to save wildlife.

Today they are shot to protect livestock.

And if we believe that African wild dogs are just feral dogs, then what is to stop people from killing them?

To make things worse, Lycaon pictus requires vast expanses of territory. They need lots and lots of room to be able to hunt enough prey to survive.

Most African national parks and private game preserves are too small for them.

And then those preserves are much more interested in promoting “sexy” animals. They do a lot to promote lions and hyenas, which are major predators and competitors of Lycaon pictus.

And if the park managers believe that Lycaon pictus is some kind of  feral animal, they aren’t going to do much to promote their conservation to either their investors or their governments.

So to solve this problem, one conservation has decided that a name change is necessary to save the species.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff writes about the efforts of conservationist Greg Rasmussen in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe:

We humans are suckers for certain kinds of wildlife, from lions to elephants. I hadn’t known I was a zebra fan until I drove my rented car into a traffic jam of zebras here. My heart fluttered.

As for rhinos, they’re so magnificent that they attract foreign aid. Women here in rural Zimbabwe routinely die in childbirth for lack of ambulances or other transport to hospitals, and they get no help. But rhinos in this park get a helicopter to track their movements.

Then there are animals that don’t attract much empathy. Aardvarks. Newts. And, at the bottom tier, African wild dogs.

Wild dogs (which aren’t actually wild dogs, but never mind that for now) are a species that has become endangered without anyone raising an eyebrow. Until, that is, a globe-trotting adventurer named Greg Rasmussen began working with local villages to rebrand the dogs — and save them from extinction.

It’s a tale that offers some useful lessons for do-gooders around the world, in clever marketing and “branding,” and in giving local people a stake in conservation. For if it’s possible to rescue a despised species with a crummy name like “wild dogs,” any cause can have legs.


Wild dogs are not dogs, which split off from wolves only in the last 30,000 years. In contrast, wild dogs last shared a common ancestor with dogs or wolves about 6 million years ago. They are the size of German shepherds and look like dogs, but they don’t bark and have different teeth and toes. And although many have tried, they have not been domesticated.

“Chimpanzees and gorillas are closer to us humans than wolves are to painted dogs,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Note that terminology: “painted dogs.” Central to Mr. Rasmussen’s effort to save the dogs has been a struggle to rename them, so that they sound exotic rather than feral.

Do-gooders usually have catastrophic marketing skills. Pepsi and Coke invest fortunes to promote their products over their rivals, while humanitarians aren’t nearly as savvy about marketing causes with far higher stakes — famine, disease, mass murder.

Mr. Rasmussen is an exception, and his effort to rebrand the species as “painted dogs” caught on. The name works because the animals’ spotted coats suggest that they ran through an artist’s studio.

Mr. Rasmussen runs the Painted Dog Conservation, a center that offers the animals a refuge from poachers and rehabilitation when they are injured. But most of all, he works with impoverished local villagers so that they feel a stake in preserving painted dogs.

Conservation efforts around the world often involve tensions with local people. But you can’t save rainforests if their advocates are 5,000 miles away, and conservationists increasingly are realizing that they can succeed only if they partner with local people.

Painted Dog Conservation does a lot of work with local people who live near these animals.  Rasmussen understands that the people aren’t as into conserving this animal because it’s not believed to be something unique.

It’s just a dog.

But if it’s a “painted dog,” it might be worth protecting.


You may note on this blog, I’ve usually called them by their scientific name or the direct English translation of that name. Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf.” Lycaon means wolf in Greek. Pictus means painted in Latin.

I think this is actually a better name than “Painted Dog.”


Well, I know they aren’t wolves as we understand them.

But neither is the South American maned wolf.

And what about the extinct the Tasmanian wolf?

Or the hyena the Namibians and South Africans call a Strandwolf?

Or the the little termite eating hyena called the aardwolf?

It seems to me that there are lots of things we call wolves but really aren’t.

The maned wolf is more distantly related to the real wolves than the Lycaon pictus is.

And the maned wolf does not have the same social structure that characterizes both Lycaon pictus and real wolves.

It seems to me that we could get away with calling this animal the “painted wolf” far more easily than we could by calling a marsupial carnivore a “Tasmanian wolf.”

And there is another thing:

North Americans and most Europeans view wolves rather strangely.

Where we once believed them to be the epitome of all evil in the wilderness, we now believe them to be the symbols of our wild heritage.

Calling Lycaon pictus a “painted wolf” would at least get people thinking about it in those terms.

Just look what has happened to the animal formerly referred to as the Simien jackal.  DNA studies told us that it was actually closely related to the wolf and coyote, and its name was changed to “Ethiopian wolf.”

People now care about it because they think of it as a wolf.

It doesn’t matter than more recent studies have found that the golden jackal is more closely related to the wolf and coyote line than the Ethiopian wolf is.

People want to conserve wolves.

They don’t want to save the jackals or the feral dogs.

It’s unfortunate, I know.

But words have power.

And so do symbols.

The wolf of Eurasia and North America has been saved largely because the symbols it represents have changed in the public imagination.

I don’t see why the symbolism of the wolf can’t be used to save Lycaon pictus.

Calling them painted wolves would certainly elevate their status in the developed countries, and it might even help generate revenue (in the form of ecotourism and various foundations) that might be used to save this species.

Whatever we call it, Lycaon pictus needs some rebranding.

But maybe not.

There are Australians who are trying to save the dingo, which is a feral breed of domestic dog!

But Australia is a much more affluent place than many African countries, and it might be easier to get people excited about something like this if their bellies are full and they have money to spend.

So a rebrand is necessary.


Before the dingo people assail me:

I am classifying the dingo with the domestic dogs for a very simple reason.

They all descend from domestic Asian dogs, not wolves. All dogs, including the dingo, descend from wolves, but their direct ancestors were domestic dogs.

I do not deny that they are pretty wild animals and are not typically suitable as pets.

However, dingos are currently listed as Canis lupus dingo. I have some issues with this classification.

I believe there are two main reasons for its subspecies status– to keep people from owning them and to ensure that governments and individuals will do all they can to preserve them as native Australian wildlife.

I certainly don’t disagree with those objectives.

But I think we need to be careful about assigning it a subspecies status.

Where does it stop?

Couldn’t we say golden retrievers a unique subspecies of C. lupus?

I guess it’s just the taxonomic lumper in me coming out.


You note that I don’t use the name Canis familiaris for domestic dogs.

I think it’s a pretty stupid name.

We call domestic pigs Sus scrofa domestica because it’s derived from the Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa).

We call the domestic horse Equus ferus caballus because it’s derived from the Eurasian wild horse (Equus ferus).

Because most domestic ducks (save the Muscovies) are derived mallards, we call them Anas platyrhynchos (no subspecies given).

I don’t get why there is so much resistance to calling domestic dogs Canis lupus familiaris.

I think it may have to do with the long held belief that domestic dogs couldn’t possibly be wolves because wolves are evil.

I am sure this thinking has tinctured a lot of discussion about dogs and their origins.

And Darwin didn’t help.

Darwin believed just about every wild dog played a role in developing the domestic dog.

It’s not true, of course.

Then Konrad Lorenz posited the theory that some dogs were derived from wolves and others were derived from golden jackals.

So far, we know of only one dog that has direct ancestry from jackals: the Sulimov dog.

Now, there are differences between dogs and wolves, but wolves themselves are pretty diverse animals.

In their wild forms, they have come in so many different forms and ecological niches throughout their natural history.

In their domestic forms, these differences can become even more greatly magnified.

The cognitive adaptations that dogs have to live with people are interesting and worth noting, but how are these different from the Arctic wolf’s white pelt or the Arabian wolf’s large ears?

Why can’t we just accept that C. lupus is a very magnificently diverse species and domestic dogs are part of it?

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I prefer to call these wild canids “painted wolves,” rather than calling them African wild dogs or Cape hunting dogs. These names come from a misidentification that these are nothing more than a feral domestic dog that is endemic to much of Africa. They are not as closely related to dogs or wolves as their pack behavior might suggest. They are closely related to the genus Canis, but they are in their own genus, Lycaon. I’ve even heard of this species referred to as a “hyena dog,” because they superficially resemble hyenas. They are canids, not hyenas, and they really have a tough time living in territory that is also filled with lions, hyenas, or both.

These animals have really tough lives. The niche that wolves filled in Eurasia and North America is already filled on the African savanna, so a large, pack-hunting dog really does have a tough time making a living. These dogs have very short life expectancy, generally less than 5 years in the wild. Because they have such short lives, they have to produce as many offspring as possible to carry on the next generation. These dogs have massive litters, as big as any seen in domestic dogs. (Arctic foxes and the painted wolf produce the largest litters of any wild dogs. Both have very tough lives in the wild, and they have to have large litters to carry on the next generation.)

The term “painted wolf” comes from the scientific name for this species, which is Lycaon pictus. “Lycaon” means wolf in Greek, and “pictus ” is the Latin word for painted. (You may know another word derived from the Greek word for wolf. The “medical term” for werewolfism is “lycanthropy,” derived from combining the words for wolf and man in Greek.)

Europeans considered the dogs vermin, not just because they did occasionally kill livestock, but because the animals were mistaken for a feral race of domestic dog, early conservationists often killed them in the name of wildlife preservation.  This misconception still exists in some quarters, so I highly recommend that we stop calling them African wild dogs or Cape hunting dogs. This is a unique African pack-hunting canid.

It could very easily become extinct in our lifetimes. Because it is so intensely social, disease is very easily transmitted among the remaining populations of this species, and because African conservation lands are becoming more and more isolated, these dogs have to share their habitat with high densities of spotted hyenas and lions, animals that compete with them for prey and often kill them on sight.

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