The regrettable and sad death of a two year-old boy at the Pittsburgh Zoo last week has cast national attention on African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), one of the more interesting - yet lesser known - canids in the world. Also known as the Cape hunting dog and Painted dogs, these canids live on the savannas and woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa.
African wild dogs: Not your average Fido
These beautiful animals are amazing hunters
The African wild dog is a striking animal, with its long legs, large round ears, and distinctive splotches of color. Unlike some other wild canids, the African wild dog has never successfully been domesticated. This is not an animal that could ever be kept as a pet; it is an animal that will always be wild.
African wild dogs are very social animals, much like wolves. They live in packs of around 20 members, with the pack being ruled by a breeding pair. The animals are constantly socializing with each other, and participate in fascinating and intricate communal hunting behavior.
In fact, African wild dogs are amazing hunters. They are large animals, the second-largest canid (behind gray wolves), and they have the strongest bite for their size of any carnivore. Their collaborative hunting style is directed largely by their vocalizations, which sound almost bird-like.
An estimated 9 out of 10 African wild dog hunts result in a successful kill. By comparison, only 3 out of 10 lion hunts result in a kill. African wild dogs will hunt even the largest, most dangerous animals on the savannah, including African buffalo, giraffes, ostrich, warthogs, and the Giant eland which can weigh up to one ton.
African wild dogs have an unusual set of gender roles compared to most other social mammals. The females compete for the males' attention at mating time. When pups reach sexual maturity, it is the males that stay with the pack, while the females go roaming in search of a new pack. And when the pack heads out for a hunt, it is often an adult male who stays behind to guard the pups.
Unfortunately for the African wild dog, life as an apex predator can be precarious these days. They are listed as an endangered species due to threats from hunting, poaching, habitat encroachment, and the loss of their prey. African wild dogs find themselves competing with lions and hyenas for scarce resources, and all three species are being persecuted (often unfairly) and killed as threats to livestock.