Humans aren't the only animals who dabble in democracy. Herds of red deer, for example, only move when at least 60 percent of adults stand up. African buffalo also vote with their feet, while honeybees can build consensus with headbutts.
And now scientists have discovered an especially odd example. According to a new study, African wild dogs in Botswana make collective decisions by sneezing.
The study's authors learned this while observing packs of wild dogs in the Okavango Delta. They were trying to figure out how African wild dogs — an endangered species also known as painted wolves — collectively decide when to go on a hunt.
African wild dogs get lots of rest, which is common for carnivores. But when they eventually stir from their rest periods, they often launch into "high-energy greeting ceremonies" known as social rallies, the researchers write in their study. These rallies are sometimes followed by group action like going out on a hunt, but not always.
"I wanted to better understand this collective behavior, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go," says study co-author Neil Jordan, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales, in a statement about the study.
"We recorded details of 68 social rallies from five African wild dog packs," Jordan says, "and couldn't quite believe it when our analyses confirmed our suspicions. The more sneezes that occurred, the more likely it was that the pack moved off and started hunting. The sneeze acts like a type of voting system."
Sneeze to leave
Nearly all social animals have some method for making group decisions, the study's authors note, and one of the most obvious examples is when everyone agrees to move on from a resting spot. Before that collective behavior happens, individuals often use signals that "operate in a type of quorum," they write, "where a specific signal has to reach a certain threshold before the group changes activity."
A wide range of species do this, and many use specific sounds to make their wishes known. A quorum of "moving calls" may compel meerkats to shift foraging areas, for example, while capuchin monkeys only hit the road if enough voters make a trilling noise. Until now, however, no animal has been known to vote by sneezing.
Wild dog sneezes aren't quite a stereotypical "ah-choo," according to study co-author and Brown University researcher Reena Walker, who tells the New York Times they're more like an "audible, rapid forced exhalation through the nose."
And while it seems to fit the pattern of social animals establishing a quorum — the study's authors do describe the dogs' sneezes as "votes" — more research will be needed to clarify how intentional the behavior is. That said, the study also revealed another quirk that lends support to the idea of voting dogs.
As they studied the wild dogs in Botswana, the researchers discovered a twist in the social rallies: Some dogs' sneezes seemed more influential than others.
"We found that when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off," Walker says in a statement. "However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed — approximately 10 — before the pack would move off."
Democracy exists on a continuum, and wild dogs are hardly alone in weighing votes unevenly. In a 1986 report on yellow baboons, for instance, primatologists noted that "the agreement of the two most influential females and often of the adult male was necessary for other individuals' suggestions to influence group decisions."
Yet even if they aren't entirely democratic, social animals may offer valuable clues about how collective decision-making evolves. Studying them could potentially help us understand the origins of our own species' consensus-building skills, although these animals are also worth understanding in their own right. And for African wild dogs — an endangered species, per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the time for understanding may be running out.
Room to roam
African wild dogs once roamed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IUCN, occupying almost every available habitat except lowland rainforests and the driest deserts. They are sly and opportunistic predators, hunting mostly medium-sized antelope but also smaller prey like warthogs, hares and lizards.
But because their packs need large territories to make a living, wild dogs have declined in recent decades as humans increasingly divide up their habitats. "The principal threat to African wild dogs is habitat fragmentation, which increases their contact with people and domestic animals, resulting in human-wildlife conflict and transmission of infectious disease," the IUCN explains. Living near humans also means more wild dogs die on roads or in snare traps meant for other animals.
African wild dogs have vanished from much of their former range, and only about 6,000 adults now exist in 39 subpopulations. Humans are encroaching on swaths of their habitat, and as the IUCN notes, the effects of this "have not ceased and are unlikely to be reversible across the majority of the species' historical range."
That doesn't mean it's a lost cause, though. Public opinion is often key to saving endangered species, and while most people probably wouldn't want to let African wild dogs die out, such elusive animals can fade from our thoughts before they fade from reality. To rally more support, Walker tells National Geographic, we need to keep African wild dogs on more people's minds. And since humans tend to have a soft spot for relatable social mammals, research like this is nothing to sneeze at.
"They're absolutely gorgeous animals focused on cooperation and their pack family unit," Walker says. "The more people who are aware [of] how amazing these animals are, the better."