The scientific name of African wild dog is Lycaon pictus, which means “painted wolf”. African wild dog is also known by many other names such as: “cape hunting dog”, “painted dog”, “ornate wolf”, “African hunting dog” and “painted hunting dog”. Wild dogs were widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Today, there is only one species of wild dogs and the largest number of individuals can be found in southern African countries such as Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The African wild dog is the second largest canine in the world, with only the northern grey wolf being heavier, but not taller. These fascinating animals have unique anatomical structures, they have interesting coat pattern and unusual vocal skills, they are successful hunters, and they have strong family bonds.
When talking about anatomy, one thing that separates them from other canids is that they have four toes on its front legs, whereas other canids have five. Wild dogs have big, round ears which help them to track the members of their group over long distances through vocal signals. The ears also help in heat loss. The surprising fact is that their skeleton is more closely related to a raccoon rather than to a dog or a wolf. Female African wild dogs are usually larger than males. Their gestation period is 72 days and they can have 12-20 pups at once. Their newborn pups have only white and black coat patterns, later they develop more colors as they grow older. For example, yellow markings start to develop at about four weeks after birth.
Their distinct feature is their spotted coat pattern. No two wild dogs have the same coat marks. Their unusual spotted fur consists of black, brown, white and yellow colors. They use the markings on their coats to identify and recognize members of their group. Also, these wild dogs use their coat patterns as camouflage, they can easily hide in their natural habitat of grassland, savannahs, and woodland. As wild dogs age, they start to lose their fur and get dark patches of bare skin on their body. Also, the African wild dog’s unusual vocal ability emits squeaks, chirps, and hoots. They really do not bark, but they make a variety of different sounds. More often they sound like birds. A separated wild dog, when looking for his crowd sounds just like an owl. Also, they can mimic dolphins and even hyenas. Must be very annoying animals!
Wild dogs resting during the day and hunt during the evening. They are known as successful hunters. When chasing their prey, their maximum speed can reach 70 km/h and they are well adapted in losing their body heat during fast races. Those unusual dogs hunt and prey on antelopes, warthogs, wildebeest calves, gazelles, rats and birds. Since they are successful hunters, hyenas follow them when they hunt and try to steal their food. They are also known as vicious killers because they start to eat their prey before it dies. African wild dogs attack their prey as a group, they bite a piece of their victim and basically tear it apart. When the wild dogs bring food to their group, the pups are fed first, then the mother of the pups, the sick, old or injured, and then everybody else.
African wild dogs are very social animals that live in packs usually of 6-20 individuals, sometimes 40! In each pack there is a dominant male and female called alpha pair (top ranking) and only this pair is allowed to reproduce. The alpha female selects a place for her pups to live. She digs the hole and contours the underground chamber before she delivers. All of the family members have different responsibilities and duties, and many gender roles in the pack are reversed. For example an alpha female often hunts by herself, while other male members babysit her pups. One of the most unique gender roles exchanges, is that the females tend to leave a pack and form a new group on their own or join other groups with stranger males. On the other hand, the males almost never leave their natal family because they have to take care of newborn male pups. When pups are about 4 months old, they start to have their own responsibilities and duties just like older members in the family. As male pups grow up, they stay in their natal group, while, females always migrate to a new pack as they reach maturity.
Even though these creatures have fascinating characteristics and strong hunting abilities, their life span is short, only 9-14 years. In addition, the African wild dogs are in high danger. Their population declines dramatically due to habitat loss, human persecution, decline in food availability, and infection. Thus, there still is a chance to visit them and explore their behavior at Lincoln Park Zoo or Brookfield Zoo of Chicago before they vanish away.