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Painted wolves (African wild dogs) are not as well known as Africa’s other predators, and certainly misunderstood. For starters, they are not dogs, or wolves – read What’s in a name. They are critically endangered, with only about 5,000 to 6,000 adults left in the wild, and sightings of these graceful predators are rare outside of specific areas. 

Here are 10 interesting facts about painted wolves:

© Botswana Tourism Board
© Botswana Tourism Board

1. Unique physique 

Their scientific name, Lycaon pictus, literally means painted wolf, referencing their mottled fur with black, brown, yellow and white colourings. Every individual’s coat has a unique pattern, which helps with identification. They have an extremely powerful bite – with specialised molars for shearing meat and breaking bone – and exceptionally keen senses of sight, smell and particularly hearing. Large rounded ears lined with numerous muscles allow them to swivel like 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.

2. Close social structures and strong pack hierarchy

The social structure of a painted wolf pack is a fascinating, almost altruistic system. Like other pack animals there is a strict hierarchy – the pack is dominated by the matriarch, and usually the alpha pair are the only ones to breed. When a litter of pups is born, they take priority over even the alphas. At first pups are fed by pack members that regurgitate fresh meat after returning from a hunt, but once old enough, they are taken to the kill and given first choice over the spoils. Adult pack members 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 pack member becomes ill, injured or elderly restricting or even incapacitating their effectiveness as a hunter, the rest of the pack cares for and feeds them. An alpha female of a pack in Botswana who lost one of her forelegs during a hunt, remained as alpha female for a few years afterwards, continuing to breed and raise pups while being looked after by the pack. For other predators this level of injury would would be a death sentence.

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3. Females rule

The alpha female is the core of the pack – leading her pack from its formation until she dies. She is the leader, general, decision maker and caring mother. Once she dies the pack splits, with the males and females heading in different directions to form new packs.

4. Nomadic nature

Painted wolves are nomadic animals and can traverse 50km in a single day. As a result, their territories can range between 400 and 1500 square kilometres. They only remain in one area when denning.

5. Coordinated when hunting

The 80% success rate in painted wolf hunts can be attributed mainly to the coordinated nature of the pack. Communication is key and the pack members 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.

© Richard Denyer
© Richard Denyer

Most predators rely on stealth to hunt their prey, but painted wolves rarely require such tactics. They 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 pack 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 members performing flanking movements to cut off any avenues of escape. Like an Olympic cycling team, pack members at the head of the chase will pull back as they tire and others will take their place. Eventually, after a few kilometres, the prey become exhausted and weak, making for an easy take down by the pack.

Another favourite tactic of painted wolves is to herd their prey towards rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. Most animals are afraid of deep water due to the risk of crocodiles, and so when an animal is chased towards water it will usually turn back and be quickly dispatched. Painted wolves have also been observed using pack members to flush prey, driving the target animal towards other pack members waiting in ambush. This tactic is frequently used by lions.

6. Enemies – man and beast

Humans are easily the largest threat to the painted wolfs’ survival. For a very long time they were viewed as ‘pests’, even by conservation authorities, and exterminated in large numbers (read the next paragraph below). They have been recorded killing livestock if no other prey is available, but there exists no recorded incident of painted wolves attacking humans. Painted wolves are regularly killed by livestock farmers, and they also fall prey to snares and poison set for other wildlife. Many painted wolves die from diseases such as rabies, usually contracted from domestic dogs. Because of their highly social nature one rabid painted wolf will quickly infect the rest of the pack, often wiping the entire pack out. In the wild, lions are the painted wolf’s main threat. Usually areas with high lion populations have low population of painted wolves. Other predators such as hyena, leopard and python also kill painted wolves, especially young ones.

7. Exterminated in the name of conservation

Generous bounties were historically offered by colonial administrations for each painted wolf’s death and visitors were even allowed to shoot them on sight in many of Africa’s protected parks. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), they were considered a ‘problem animal’ right up until 1977. In 1975 alone, 3,404 painted wolves were destroyed in vermin control operations.

8. Relationship values

The dominant pair is monogamous and would usually be the only ones in the pack to breed, though a beta pair does sometimes produce pups as well, which are then either killed or adopted by the alpha pair. Each litter can have between four and 12 pups. Unlike most other pack animals, male painted wolves tend to stay within their pack’s territory once reaching sexual maturity, whereas the females will travel long distances to find a mate and start or join a new pack. This behaviour is a good countermeasure against inbreeding.

© Richard Denyer
© Richard Denyer

9. Interesting genetics

Painted wolves used to be found across the African continent, but are now limited to countries in the south and east of Africa, the main strongholds being in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and the Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve. East African painted wolves are slightly smaller than their counterparts in the south. There are five subspecies of painted wolf; the Cape, East African, West African, Chadian and Somali, though the genetic diversity of these subdivisions is under debate. Although painted wolves do share a common ancestor with wolves from a few million years ago, they are not genetically compatible, so interbreeding with any other canids isn’t possible. The selective breeding applied to domesticated dogs which formed the different breeds could never work with painted wolves.

10. They cannot be domesticated

People have attempted to tame painted wolves, but never successfully. They are naturally distrusting of humans or indeed any animal outside of their own pack. When humans have domesticated dogs in the past, it was due to certain character traits prevalent in canines that could be amplified through breeding. One of these traits was a willingness to be touched by humans. This, combined with traits of curiosity and opportunism, paved the way for humanity’s greatest symbiotic relationship with an animal affectionately named “man’s best friend.” Painted wolves have never displayed these traits and it is unlikely they ever will.

Read more about painted wolves here – this feature includes some spectacular photographs.

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