Friday, July 8, 2011

Wolves, Dingoes and Feral Dogs Cooperate, But Do They Coordinate?


Wolf pack
Wolf pack returning from the hunt


Dingoes, the oldest feral dog, don't breed like wolves do
 
Uncritical comparisons between the behaviour of wolves, dogs and dingoes have led to the widespread assumption that domestic dogs base all their social interactions on a concept of hierarchy - a stratified society in which each animal/human knows its current position and attempts to elevate its status whenever an opportunity presents itself.

However, studies of the social behaviour of feral dogs, especially those done recently by Sunil Pal and his co-workers in West Bengal, have failed to detect the cooperative breeding that is so characteristic of wolf-packs, and which has been used to support the hierarchy concept.  Instead, all adult pairs attempt to breed, and each bitch raises her own puppies.  Domestication appears to have stripped away some of the more sophisticated aspects of wolf social behaviour (replaced, I would argue, with a more nuanced ability to socialise with our own species).

Rick McCarren has recently emailed me suggesting that feral dogs might still be capable of adopting wolf-type social structures, but never do so because they scavenge for most of their food, and so never learn to hunt cooperatively.

It has long been thought that wolf packs coordinate their efforts when hunting together, but even this is now being questioned.  Opinions are currently divided, but there is little hard evidence that wolf packs actually coordinate their hunting activities, beyond simply all members of the pack chasing the same prey animal at the same time.  This is supported by the observation that, on average, packs of wolves actually get less food per head than pairs of wolves do.   It only takes one wolf to kill a moose, but once dead, that moose can feed many wolves.  It thus pays parent wolves to allow their grown-up young to accompany them on the hunt, so that their kin can make use of the surplus meat, rather than leave it to be scavenged by unrelated wolves, or indeed other species.  Thus group hunting is now generally thought to be a simple benefit of the wolf's capacity to form packs, which under normal circumstances comprise a breeding pair and their dependent offspring, and are only hierarchical in the sense that any family is.


Dingoes, the wild dogs of Australia, should provide another useful model for understanding the domestic dog's social capacities, since they are the descendants of domestic dogs that crossed over from New Guinea several thousand years ago.  Initially, most studies of dingoes were done in captivity, and came to the same (erroneous) conclusions as studies of captive wolves, that packs were "dominated" by a single breeding pair that suppressed all other breeding.  However, it is now known that in the wild all the female dingoes in a pack breed every year, just like the feral dogs in Bengal.

Unlike wolves, however, at least one study has indicated that packs of dingoes are better at catching kangaroos or cattle than are solitary dingoes - with pairs somewhere in between.  Nevertheless, no evidence has been found that a pack of dingoes actually coordinates its hunting tactics.

However, the main conclusion that I draw from these studies of dingoes is that even feral dogs that hunt as a pack today, and have presumably done so for more than a thousand generations, still do not breed cooperatively, nor do they establish 'hierarchies' that confer breeding rights to some, and deny them to others. 
Further evidence that domestic dogs don't strive for 'status'.

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