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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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Source.

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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