African wild dogs make democratic decisions by sneezing

Next time you cast a vote, consider the unlikely company you are keeping as a participant in a democratic process: the African wild dog. Scientists studying packs of this endangered species have found that the canines use sneezes to vote on whether or not it’s time to move off and start hunting.

In research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, an international team led by Neil Jordan of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, studied what African wild dogs in Botswana did after a period of rest. The dogs in a pack greet each other in highly energetic ceremonies called social rallies, before they move off together.

“I wanted to better understand this collective behaviour, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go,” says Jordan.

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A detailed analysis of 68 social rallies among 5 dog packs in the Okavango Delta showed that the more sneezes that occurred, the more likely the pack was to start moving.

“The sneeze acts like a type of voting system,” according to Jordan.

Similar quorum behaviour is also observed among meerkats, but the researchers found an added twist in the dogs’ voting process that may also be familiar – in practice, if not in principle – from human democracies: not all votes are equal.

When the pack’s dominant male or dominant female is involved in the rally, only a few sneezes are required to instigate movement. When no high-status pack member is involved the weight of numbers must be greater, and around 10 sneezes are needed.

It may not be perfectly fair, but it seems to work for the African wild dog. As Winston Churchill famously said, democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

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