Packs of African wild dogs are deadly, calculating hunters. Part of their success is an unusual system of group decision making, where they vote on when to start the chase – with votes in this case being sneezes.
The revelation started out when a scientist studying wild dogs in Botswana told his colleagues he was convinced he could predict when a pack would leave by how much sneezing was going on. The scientist, Neil Jordan, of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, had a bit of convincing to do when he first put the idea forward.
"We laughed at first," Andrew King of Swansea University, who worked with Jordan on a study on the dogs, told IBTimes UK. "But then we went out to see the dogs."
By counting the number of sneezes in a group and monitoring when they would start to move, the team saw that the sneeze system of voting was really happening. As the number of sneezes went up, the probability of the pack departing shot up too.
This is a typical description of a quorum, which is actually quite common in nature. Bees and ants use quorums to decide where to nest, and bacteria even use them for regulating their gene expression. But finding this system linked to a vote on group decisions is unique in nature.
The voting system itself is "democratic-ish", King said. All dogs' sneezes count, but if a high-ranking male or female dog wants to go, they barely have to snivel and the group will be off.
"You can still think of it as democratic but the weight of the vote that a dominant dog has is greater than that of a subordinate dog," King said.
"It's just like in our own elections – we think that your vote is equal to my vote, but depending on the constituency we're in and where the balance of power is, the votes might not count for the same. Some have a greater influence than others."
Whether or not the dogs are conscious of what they are doing is not known. It could be that the sneeze is a by-product of the dogs being ready to go, and the group senses this readiness through listening to the sneezes.
The other, more exciting alternative is that the dogs sneeze with the intention of communicating that they're ready to go.
"We'd need to do further investigation to determine that," King said. "Either way, there's no difference in outcomes or behaviour, just a difference in what's going on in the animals' heads."