The Dhole (Cuon alpinus) is a unique canid. Here is a compilation of some of the more interesting aspects of Dhole biology:
- It is the only member of the genus Cuon (like the African Hunting Dog, Lycaon pictus is of the genus Lycaon). Like the the latter, it is also one of the few canid species to have a hypercarnivorous diet (more than 70% of the food intake being meat).
- The massive skull of the Dhole shows the adaptations it has undergone as a hypercarnivore – short rostrum, prominent sagittal crest, powerful temporalis and masseter muscles. These give it an almost Hyena-like experience.
- Unlike members of the genus Canis, the skull is convex in profile. The molars of the upper jaw are adapted for shearing meat. The lower jaw has the last pair of molars missing. These again distinguish it from Canis species.
- It communicates by whistling, whining, growling, yelping, yapping, screaming, and chattering. The Dhole does not bark or howl. A range of expressions, gestures and postures are also deployed for the same purpose. Communication plays a key role in Dhole hunting strategy.
- The Dhole is far more social than the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus). They live in packs that can number from three to forty individuals. Dominant members are far less aggressive towards other individuals in the pack and fights between them are rare.
- Dholes are cooperative hunters, relying on numbers to bring down prey. They prefer medium-to-large sized ungulates. Before they embark on a hunt, members of a pack engage in a number of grooming rituals.
- Dholes are excellent runners and swimmers. They pursue prey through the undergrowth, and even into the water, before catching hold of it and disemboweling it. Victims are often eaten alive. Most of the hunts take place during daytime.
- The flesh of the prey animal is consumed immediately, in the form of large chunks. This behaviour enables Dholes to avoid the threat posed by larger predators – Tigers, Leopards and Hyenas. Adults regurgitate the swallowed meat for infants and nursing mothers who can’t accompany the pack.
- Dhole packs live in territories that have dens. These range from simple caverns (underneath rocks, riverbanks or scrub) dug by other creatures, to complex underground tunnels (interconnected to each other) maintained by pack females over generations.
- Dholes seem to have communal latrine sites where they defecate. The purpose of such sites is not clear. Since they are not located on the edges of the pack’s territory, they would be of little use in demarcating boundaries.
- Unlike many canids, Dholes don’t seem to use urine for marking their territories or trails. Males have a peculiar habit of rearing up on their forelimbs when urinating. This handstand technique has been observed in the South American Bush Dog (Speothos venaticus).
- In contrast to Gray Wolf packs, where only the alpha female can raise young, Dhole packs have multiple breeding females. They raise their young together. Nursing females and pups are looked after by guard dogs. They are fed regurgitated meat by returning pack members.
- Dhole reproduction is also unique among canids. They don’t have the copulatory tie that is characteristic of Canis species. Females have 6 to 7 pairs of teats to nurse pups, of which there might be as many as 12 , born after a gestation period of 60 days.
- Pack and litter size in Dholes is determined by the availability of prey. Medium-to-large ungulates should be available in sufficient numbers for Dhole packs to reach optimum size. Pups can join hunting parties once they are 8 months old. They can live for as long as 15 years.
- Dholes share their range with Tigers, Leopards, and Snow Leopards. Unlike the Gray Wolf, they seem to compete successfully with the big cats. Tigers have been known to devastate Gray Wolf packs in their territories. But Dholes hold their own against them while dominating the Leopards.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration from the book ‘The Wild Beasts of the World’ (authored by Frank Finn). This particular painting was done by the English artist Winifred Maria Louise Austin (1876-1964). She was famed for her portraits of wild creatures and was appointed a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.