Science Spotlight: Saving African Wild Dogs

 
 

Pictured above: African Wild Dog in London Zoo wearing one of the “daily diaries.” 

 

Aoife Hardesty talks to zoologist Holly English about her work with African Wild Dogs


As children we all have big dreams about where we’ll be when we’re grown-ups. We dream of the exciting jobs we’ll have and aspire to be the coolest person ever. For zoologist Holly English, her dream as a ten-year old has come true, she is now a zoologist working with African Wild Dogs. At the age of ten, English “happened across a documentary on African wild dogs. I’d never heard of them and according to the documentary they were endangered. So in the way that children do, I casually decided I was going to save them.”


African wild dogs are a canine species that live in desert and arid regions of South and East Africa. Their colour varies between individuals and it is thought that this allows the dogs to recognise each other by sight at distances of 50m to 100m. As English grew up and learned more and more about the dogs, she became fascinated by “their pack structure and social behaviour.” She chose to do a masters degree which would allow her to do as much independent research as possible. The best part she says “is collecting my very own data on African wild dogs. Not only because that’s something I’ve wanted for a very long time, but also because of the feeling of triumph it brought after encountering numerous pitfalls early on in my masters. An important lesson in all of this for me was learning how often and the extent to which research can go wrong. So maybe the second best part has been learning to adapt and persevere!”


“For English’s project she collaborates with London Zoo and is using the data logging collars on African wild dogs living in the zoo”  

The benefit of data loggers such as the Daily Diary is that “these collars can teach us not only where animals go and how long they spend there, but what they’re doing and where they’re doing it. We can build a picture of animal behaviour when there are no human observers that might cause study subjects to act abnormally. These profound insights into animal behaviour can be hugely informative to conservation efforts.”


For African wild dogs, the collars will enable researchers to “learn about hunting patterns and strategies, and how these vary depending on whether the pack has pups. The Daily Diary’s temperature and light sensors can be used to tie in with current research investigating climate change impacts on this species, by assessing shade-seeking behaviour and activity levels at different environmental temperatures.”


At the time I interviewed English, she was in Brazil, attempting to discover how “this work on wild dogs can be applied to other members of the canid family.” English describes the Brazil project as “expanding [her] canine repertoire,” she is working with three different canine species; “the maned wolf, the crab-eating fox, and the pampas fox. The maned wolf is roughly the same size as an African wild dog, but these species live very different lives. Wild dogs live in packs and are strictly carnivorous, whereas maned wolves are solitary and up to 50% of their diet can be made up of fruit. Comparing these species with the much smaller, omnivorous crab-eating and pampas foxes can potentially tell us a lot about broad patterns of movement and behaviour seen across the canid family, and how these vary with body size and feeding ecology.”


“Describing a pack in South Africa… Two individuals [in the pack] were missing a back leg each, despite this they were still able to take part in hunts” 

She thinks part of why her love for the dogs has never wavered is because “they were that first spark of inspiration that started me on this journey into zoology. A journey that began the day I first watched a documentary about African wild dogs, and will hopefully continue for many years to come.”

 

 

 

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