Endangered African painted dogs, like those at the Oklahoma City Zoo, live in dynamic family groups and have a population of only about 1,400 mature individuals in the wild. That’s why establishing a large breeding population is an important safeguard against extinction. Painted dog breeding and population management is coordinated through the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan (SSP). The SSP moves animals among zoos regularly to maintain genetic diversity and mimic natural dispersal patterns.
In the wild, painted dogs live in packs ranging from two to twenty or more individuals. These packs include a breeding pair, the dominant male and female, while other pack members (subordinates) help raise puppies and participate in group hunting. These ranks, or jobs, are established by the individuals of the pack, but we do not fully understand the dynamics that go into the assignment of rank within a pack. Understanding the development of social ranks within packs is important, because it helps zoo caretakers choose the best individuals to form new packs. That’s where my research comes in. I am studying social rank development in painted dogs at the OKC Zoo for my master’s thesis at the University of Central Oklahoma.
I have been studying a litter of painted dogs at the Zoo, observing this pack over the last year to look for specific behaviors that signal social rank. This included recording solitary behaviors, social behaviors, and reactions to novel object presentations. Novel object presentations involved providing a new item (toy, food, etc.) to the pack and then documenting who approached the object first. These presentations were used to assess which individuals were more curious and bold. Observations on individuals were used to gather information about the types of behaviors displayed and about the types of social interactions that occurred (positive, negative, neutral).
I found that there were a few individuals that displayed bolder behaviors, as well as more dominant behaviors. These are behaviors I expect individuals with a higher social rank to show. In the wild, these individuals would be more likely to leave their family group and form their own pack. Some lower ranking individuals might go along to support this new leader. I am testing this idea and will use my data to help select three males from OKC Zoo who will move to another zoo to start a new pack. Based on my observations, I recommended one male to move to the new zoo who has the highest possibility to be the leader of the new pack. The other two individuals I recommended were chosen based on how often they interacted with the potential leader. My hope is that this relocation will be successful and aid in further understanding of the best way to assess painted dog social ranking. My overall goal with this study is to increase understanding of painted dog pack dynamics, and provide a method for zoos to successfully establish new packs.
-Rikki Curto, University of Central Oklahoma, graduate student, Department of Biology