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Hunting and feeding behaviour of the African wild dog

24 June 2014

www.leopard.tvThe African wild dog Lycaon pictus was originally described as a form of hyaena Hyaena pictus by C J Temminck in 1820 based on a specimen from Mozambique, and was generically renamed Lycaon by Brookes in 1827. Lycaon is derived from the Greek word lykaios which means wolfish and pictus from the Latin word pictura for a painting or the Greek word picta for spotted. Specimens in the southern savannas have more white in their coats than in the northern ones. Ecologically, the African wild dog is the equivalent of the Asiatic red dog or dhole Cuon alpinus and the grey wolf Canis lupus as sociable, coursing hunters. Because it is highly mobile and occurs at low densities the wild dog has become the most endangered canid in the world. Its diet is less strictly carnivorous than that of a wild cat, it selects food opportunistically, will eat almost any fresh food that becomes available, rarely scavenges for fresh food only but does not eat carrion.

The wild dog is the only canid that hunts larger prey throughout the year. Prey selection depends on what is available but the main prey is a heribivore weighing from 15 to 100 kg. It exploits prey atrributes when hunting. For example, on the Serengeti Plains, Thomson’s gazelle rams are preferred to ewes as the rams have shorter flight distances because they are terirritorial, while Burchell’s zebra mares there are selected over stallions because the mares tire more quickly when pursued than the stallions. Prey choice may vary seasonally because some prey move around to seek better habitats in the rainy and dry seasons. The impala forms the main diet in many parts of Africa because it is abundant and easy to hunt. In the Waterberg the main prey is the bushbuck, impala and greater kudu. Other carnivores such as foxes and jackals may be hunted at times. Smaller prey such as springhares and porcupines are more often taken by wild dogs that hunt alone than by packs. There is still no evidence that sick or injured animals are selected as prey as is commonly believed. In exceptional cases, a wild dog may eat reptiles and bird eggs.

Of all the canids, cooperative hunting is most ritualized in the wild dog, resulting in a high hunting success rate. I has to run down its prey because it lacks the morphological specialization of a cat to bring prey down over a short distance, and because it hunts on the run it cannot use camouflage to assist it when hunting. Nevertheless, in dense vegetation wild dogs do flush and ambush prey frequently and opportunistically but this is an acquired hunting behaviour in specific regions.

A wild dog pack hunts for some 3,5 hours per day and locates potential prey by moving widely through its range during the day. Once located, the pack moves slowly toward the prey over a wide front. Prey animals detect the intentions of a pack and when it is merely moving through its territory the prey will not react but will start to flee once the wild dogs approach as close as 50 m. However, when the pack’s intentions are clearly to hunt, the prey may start to flee when the wild dogs are as much as 2 km away. When the prey animals flee, the wild dogs select a specific individual and stay focussed on it, sometimes passing other animals in the process. However, in the Moremi Game Reserve, the wild dogs have adapted to split up and chase several prey animals at the same time, regrouping later at the point where the hunt started. Wild dogs that had hunted successfully also return to the starting point to lead the pack to the kill. Chases are usually not excessive but at times they can last for several kilometres back and forth at speeds of up to 66 km per hour. Wild dogs also do not hunt in relays as is commonly believed. Most chases last from 10 to 60 minutes and the experience of the older members in the pack is vital for success. Only wild dogs from two to six years old participate in the chase.

www.leopard.tvLarger prey animals are attacked on the run by any pack member who catches up with them. Certain types and age groups of prey are hunted more often than others. Flanking dogs remain behind the pack to intercept prey that dodge or circle back. Although wild dogs hunt as a pack they do not hunt cooperatively in a coordinated way. Any wild dog that catches up to a fleeing prey animal will tear lumps of flesh or even the intestines from it on the run. The hunt ends when the prey weakens, falters, stops and is killed by the older members of the pack. Smaller packs are less successful hunters than larger ones. Smaller prey are located in tall grass by hearing rather than scent, and is then killed by a swipe of the paw or a well-directed bite without an extended chase. If only 25 per cent of their kills were to be robbed by larger scavengers such as spotted hyaenas, a pack will have to extend its hunts to as much as 12 hours to be able to maintain the proper balance between energy expenditure and gain. This is impossible for them to do and it explains why wild dogs in  larger wildlife reserves usually only occur in areas with low densities of spotted hyaenas. However, a large pack can rob the kill of lions, leopards and spotted hyaenas. Despite claims to the contrary wild dogs rarely kill livestock.

The pack feeds rapidly and peacefully and consumes large carcasses completely but small prey can be consumed completely within 15 minutes. The front paws are used to aid feeding in 50 per cent of the cases. Except when feeding on skin, a wild dog chews its food more thoroughly than any other large carnivore. In contrast to most of the other large carnivores, the pups have clear priority at a kill. They are followed in the feeding sequence by the young dogs and then by the dominant or alpha pair. Smaller prey may be eaten entirely by the pups to leave nothing for the adults. Its small body weight and the low mechanical advantage of its small skull do not allow a wild dog to crush bones effectively. In the Maasai Mara Game Reserve a wild dog eats a mean of 80 to 200 g of meat per day, but elsewhere it is up to 5,9 kg per day, of which 1 kg may be regurgitated to small pups. The adults of both sexes will cache meat for themselves near a den that contains small pups. The meat may be covered with vegetation or loose soil, and the responsible dog will move directly to it. African wild dogs also drink water regularly.

 

References:

Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pp 145 -150.

Ramnanan, R, L H Swanepoel & M J Somers 2013. The diet and presence of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) on private land un the Waterberg region, South Africa. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 43: 68 - 73.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds). 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 475 - 480.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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