The endangered painted wolves are unusual in the animal kingdom for their cooperative social system, through which the majority of animals never reproduce despite reaching reproductive age. It is estimated that less than 5,500 of these creatures exist in the wild, mainly due to human disturbances, in addition to the threat of disease and rival predators.
In the penultimate episode of BBC’s Dynasties, Sir David Attenborough is educating us about painted wolves – also known as ‘African wild dogs’– and we’ve gathered some facts for you to enjoy as an accompaniment to the show.
- Welcome to the pack
Painted wolves live and cooperate in packs. New packs form when a group of females joins an unfamiliar group of males; these single-sex groups usually consist of sisters or brothers who have left the pack they were born in together (known as their ‘natal pack’). Immediately after forming the coalition, a dominant pair – one male and one female – emerges to lead the new pack. Packs typically grow to be thirty individuals strong before breaking apart into single-sex groups once more, but packs can grow to have over fifty members!
- Leaving the pack
Any wolves that survive to be one year old remain in their natal pack to assist in raising younger siblings. Female wolves tend to leave their original pack in their second year, while males are likely to wait another year to emigrate as part of a larger sibling group. In addition, males tend to emigrate twice as far away from their natal pack as females.
- Energy-burning hounds
Painted wolves have an extremely high energetic output, spending their energy on roaming their territory and hunting. This means their survival and reproductive success depends not only on their ability to capture prey but also on minimising time spent foraging.
- Competition for food
Painted wolves often live in the same area as lions and hyenas, who pose competition for food, but not in the way you’d expect. Wild dogs are perfectly capable of catching their own food, however they can fall victim to ‘kleptoparasitism’, when one animal steals prey that has already been caught by another. Typically, wolves hunt for around 3.5 hours per day, but if they lose 25% of their food they must increase time spent hunting to 12 hours to replenish used energy, which can have implications for the endangered species’ survival.
- Increased vegetation = higher reproductive success
Certain terrains can have greater benefits to reproduction in painted wolves. When searching for a den site in which to give birth, painted wolves choose areas with increased terrain ruggedness and vegetation density, where their newborn pups will be better hidden from potential threats. However, only vegetation density has been found to be associated with larger litter sizes and increased reproductive success – i.e. higher numbers of pups survive to potentially reproduce themselves – suggesting this factor is most important to den site selection of painted wolves.
- Alphas dominate reproduction
In a pack of painted wolves, reproduction is largely monopolised by the alpha male and female. This trait is not only behavioural, but biological: during mating periods, subordinate females have lower oestrogen levels than dominant females; they are also less aggressive and mate less often. Similarly, subordinate males have lower testosterone levels, and display lower levels of aggression and mating behaviour. This ensures the pack’s offspring is as strong and as equipped for reproductive success as possible, thus promoting the survival of the species.
- Cooperative parenting: beneficial for all?
Non-breeding adults assist in raising the offspring of dominant breeders in the pack, thus increasing pup survival, reproduction rates, and pack size. However, this cooperation also decreases adult survival, suggesting that cooperative parenting did not evolve from mutual beneficiary effects, but instead from kin selection and to support survival of the group as a whole through promoting survival of the strongest pups.
- Pups take priority at meal time
While lions punish their cubs for sneaking in to eat the kill early, painted wolves do the opposite, allowing their pups to eat their fill first before the adults eat the remainder, further prioritising survival of the next generation over that of the adults. Adults also babysit their pups when on a hunt: at around 14 weeks old, pups begin to follow the adults when they go hunting, but they often go astray and must be retrieved and led to the fresh kill.
- Larger population, less land
The bigger the size of the pack, the smaller the home range for painted wolves. Pack size isn’t however an indicator of daily distance travelled by members of the pack, who may venture outside the home range to go hunting. Larger litters also reduce the home range of a pack, as well as reducing pack movements.
Featured image credit: African painted dog, or African wild dog, Lycaon pictus at Savuti, Chobe National Park, Botswana by Derek Keats. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.