African dogs prefer sprints to marathons

A radio-collared pack of African wild dogs from the study in Botswana shares an impala (Supplied / Megan Claase)
A radio-collared pack of African wild dogs from the study in Botswana shares an impala (Supplied / Megan Claase)

African wild dogs are more like sprinters than marathon runners when it comes to hunting, according to new research that overtakes and overturns conventional knowledge.

Solar-powered collars were placed on a pack of six wild dogs in Botswana, which logged their movements and recorded it using an onboard gyroscope and accelerometer.

It gave international researchers a new look into how the endangered species hunt in their natural environment.

The results of the study were published in two papers in Nature Communications today.

"For the first time, we have shown that wild dogs achieve hunting success through short high-speed runs, rather than long-distance pack hunts that are portrayed in wildlife documentaries about the animals," says study co-author and research fellow at UNSW Australia and Taronga, Dr Neil Jordan.

"This means their hunting strategies in the wild are far more adaptable than previously thought, and this is good news for their conservation."

Over six months, the team collected data from 1119 individual chases of mostly impala from the woodland savannah in the Okavango Delta.

Dr Jordan says the team was amazed there was no evidence of high-level cooperative hunting, as well as the short distance and high speed of the hunts.

"Instead, individual dogs ran independently of other pack members, did not assume particular roles, and never ran 'relays' -- taking over the chase from a tiring pack-mate.

"The wild dogs typically employed short bursts of speed over distances averaging only about 200 metres, and they ran at high speed for a mere kilometre each day," says Dr Jordan.

Their preferred short bursts of speed draws comparisons to the cheetah -- the fastest carnivore in the world, clocked at 93km/h.

The wild dogs wouldn't be able to catch a cheetah, but their top speed of 68.4km/h is nothing to sneeze at.

Dr Jordan says the wild dogs have been characterised in documentaries as endurance hunters, chasing down their prey over long distances.

It was thought that would make them vulnerable to other carnivores like hyenas stealing their kill.

"Combined with sharing their spoils with their pack-mates, this makes them much more energetically robust -- welcome news for this endangered species," Dr Jordan says.

But wide-ranging nature of the packs still leaves them open to human threats outside designated protection areas, which are typically too small and filled with competitors to allow a viable population to survive.

Head of conservation and science at Taronga Zoo in Sydney Dr Rebecca Spindler says the new information helps understand how the animals fit in the ecosystem and also for conservation planning for the species.