While studying how African wild dogs in Botswana mark their territory, a group of zoologists noticed something unusual: The dogs were sneezing. A lot.
The team observed sneezing patterns among five different packs and concluded that the pooches were not simply coming down with a cold. Instead, as Traci Watson reports for National Geographic, the dogs seemed to be using sneezes to vote on whether or not to embark on a hunt.
Before wild dogs set out in search of a tasty meal, they participate in a high-energy ritual known as a “rally,” in which the dogs avidly wag their tails, touch heads, and run around. Researchers from the United States, Wales and Australia observed 68 of these rallies among African wild dogs at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, according to the BBC. Sometimes, the rallies would end with the dogs running off together to hunt. Other times, the dogs would simply lie down and take a snooze.
The team noticed that when there was more sneezing at a rally, the dogs were more likely to set off and start hunting. This association led them to believe that for African wild dogs, sneezes “function as a voting mechanism to establish group consensus.” They published their results in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The researchers found that the sneeze-votes were not entirely democratic. When a dominant dog in the pack initiated the rally, it only took three sneezes for the pack to get moving, according to the study. But when subordinate members of the pack started the rally, it took at least ten sneezes to guarantee that the hunt would happen.
It is not unusual for animals to use signals to reach a consensus about when to move to a different location. Meerkats make “moving calls.” Capuchin monkeys trill. Even honeybees emit an auditory cue called a “piping signal” when they are ready to buzz to a different spot. And with many species, a certain number of signals are required before the entire group moves off. As the authors of the study put it, the animals reach a “quorum” when making collective decisions.
Sneezing, however, had never before “been documented as a major communicative function of African wild dogs,” the researchers write.
The study also adds depth to our understanding of African wild dogs’ complex social structure. When it comes to matters of reproduction, the pooches are deeply hierarchical; typically, only the dominant pair breeds, and rest of the pack bands together to care for its pups. But in other matters—like hunting, for instance—African wild dogs are “not really despotic,” study co-author Reena Walker tells Watson of National Geographic. Dominant dogs’ sneezes may count for more, but it seems that the rest of the pack still gets a vote.