The effects of captivity on display-based communication and social interaction in the captive African wild dog (Lycaon pictus)
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The obligate cooperative nature of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), unique among social canids, is thought to be driven by high levels of interspecific competition and intra-guild predation with other large socially-organised predators. Research exploring how wild dogs maintain social bonds through social communication, while avoiding detection from potential competitors, is therefore vital for understanding this species. While olfactory and vocal communications are well represented in the literature concerning L. pictus, these channels of communication pose significant risks to wild dog survival, as they are inherently susceptible to eavesdropping by unintended receivers. In comparison, display communication, which requires visual contact between the signaller and receiver, poses comparatively less risk of attracting the attention of eavesdroppers. In spite of this, few studies have explored the use of display communication in wild dogs, leaving its potential significance in maintaining social bonds within packs unexplored. Using video analysis, I investigate how display communication and subsequent social interaction are affected by several pressures of the captive environment. Captivity did not appear to affect the presence of many social display types also used by free-ranging wild dogs. However, sexual behaviour was absent from the study groups, likely due to the use of contraception and pack sex composition. The effects of pack sex composition (single-sex versus mixed-sex) revealed that while the frequencies and durations of many social behaviours were not affected by sex composition, the distribution of social interactions did differ depending on group structure. Here, a highly related, single-sex group was more stable than a highly related, mixed-sex group of the same size. Differences in the captive management strategies, specifically enclosure size and feeding regime, of the two packs, may explain the behavioural differences observed. The death of a pack member permitted investigation of the effects of death on social interactions. While many of the social interactions were unaffected by the death, behaviours relating to the formation and maintenance of social dominance and social hierarchy increased after the dog’s death. The distribution of social interactions was non-random, suggesting that individuals were reorganising the social structure of the pack during this period. Finally, a small study into the effects of simultaneously added enrichments in the pack (post death) revealed that enrichment reduced the frequencies of dominance behaviours and allowed for a more even distribution of social interaction within the pack. This demonstrates how enrichment may potentially be used to reduce aggression within captive animals. Overall, this research reveals that display-based communication is important for the maintenance of sociality in captive African wild dogs. To better understand this endangered species, future studies in free-ranging populations should include this channel of communication.