Their scientific name, Lycaon pictus, literally means painted wolf, referencing their mottled fur with black, brown, yellow and white colorings. Every dog’s coat has a unique pattern making individuals easy to spot. They have an extremely powerful bite with specialized molars for shearing meat and breaking bone and have exceptionally keen senses of sight, smell and particularly hearing, . Large rounded ears lined with numerous muscles allow the dogs to swivel them like two radar dishes, picking up the minutest of sounds. Long legs, a lean build and rapid muscle recovery all assist in making this animal a formidable endurance hunter.
The social structure of a wild dog pack is a fascinating, almost altruistic system. Like other pack animals there is a strict hierarchy, with an alpha breeding pair in charge of the group and the rest of the pack members are all subordinates. When a litter of pups is born, they take priority over even the alphas. At first pups are fed by the dogs regurgitating fresh meat after returning from a hunt, but once old enough, they are taken to the kill and given first choice over the spoils. The other dogs patiently wait on the side lines, standing guard until their turn to feed. They almost never fight amongst themselves over food due to this ranking system. When a dog becomes ill, injured or elderly restricting or even incapacitating their effectiveness as a hunter, the rest of the pack cares for and feeds them.
The 80% success rate in wild dog hunts can be attributed mainly to the coordinated nature of the pack. Communication is key and the dogs constantly let one another know both their location and that of the prey. Their high intelligence and teamwork allows them to adapt to changing scenarios during a hunt.
Most predators rely on stealth to hunt their prey, but wild dogs rarely require such tactics. The dogs are built for high stamina chases. A typical hunt will involve the pack spreading out in a line to cover more ground and give each member space to manoeuvre. Upon finding prey the dogs will immediately approach and test the animals’ defences, probing a herd for any weak members. Once a target is selected, the pack attempts to panic and separate the herd. The pack then gives chase to the selected individual, with some dogs performing flanking movements to cut off any avenues of escape. Like an Olympic cycling team, the dog at the head of the chase will pull back as they tire and another one will take their place.
Humans are easily the largest threat to the wild dogs’ survival. For a very long time they were considered pests though there was little to no evidence suggesting so. They would only go after livestock if desperate, and to this day there are no recorded incidents in Africa of wild dogs attacking humans. In the wild, lions are the dogs’ main threat. When an area has a high population density of lions, it directly correlates to a low population of wild dogs. Other predators, while still a threat, generally don’t cause the dogs any problems. Hyenas will attempt to steal kills from them but wouldn’t hunt adult members of the pack.