The Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) might be the most famous wild dog in the world, celebrated for its impressive size and remarkable intelligence. But there is another canid species which can give the Gray Wolf a run for its money. For sheer nerve. I am talking about the Dhole or Asiatic Wild Dog (Cuon alpinus). The Dhole is a lightweight compared to the Gray Wolf. The latter can reach an impressive 70 kg in weight, stand 85 cm at the shoulder and measure 165 cm in length. The former is diminutive in comparison – 20 kg in weight, 50 cm at the shoulder and 90 cm in length. But what it loses out in terms of size, it makes up in terms of character.
Dholes were once found across most of Central, South, Southeast and East Asia. This is also the home range of the greatest of big cats, the Tiger (Panthera tigris), a fact that might explain why the Dhole developed such a remarkable temperament. It is reputed to be very aggressive in its interactions with big cats. There are legends of Dhole packs (numbering up to 40, keeping aside unverified accounts of packs 100 strong) hunting down Tigers in the forests of India. While these might be old wives’ tales, biologists have confirmed that they do stand their ground when confronted by Tigers. When it comes to Leopards, Dholes have been observed mobbing and forcing the cats up trees.
The species has a unique appearance. With its rusty red fur and brown (or pale white) throat, chest, belly and paws, the Dhole can be easily identified. The tail is fox-like, bushy and ends in a black tip. The skull has a short rostrum (or snout), a prominent sagittal crest (for the attachment of temporalis muscles) and powerful masseter muscles (that power the lower jaw in its chewing motion). All these are adaptations developed for hypercarnivory (a diet where meat makes up at least 70% of the food consumed). Hypercarnivory is a feature usually associated with the cat family. The Dhole, along with the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), is one of the few canids that is a hypercarnivore. Like the latter, it is also the only surviving member of its genus Cuon. I shall be writing more about its unique evolutionary history in coming posts.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is based on an illustration by Samuel Howitt – ‘A Tiger Hunted by Wild Dogs’ that dates back to 1807. Howitt was an English illustrator, hailing from Nottinghamshire, who specialized in natural history. His most famous paintings were done for Captain Thomas Williamson’s book ‘Oriental Field Sports’, of which the illustration above is one example.