Wild Dog Urine May Be Used as "Fences" in Africa
Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
|March 11, 2004|
The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), listed as endangered by the
World Conservation Union (IUCN), is in serious trouble, largely because
its instinct to roam widely keeps bringing it into lethal contact with
humans. Now researchers are hoping to keep the dog from wandering where
they are not wanted by using wild dog urine samples. The urine scent
marks would be used in the same way the dogs use urine to demarcate
The concept has been dubbed a BioFence. It is based on the same technique domestic dogs use to leave messages and presumably stake out their territoryby lifting a leg against trees, poles, car wheels, and other landmarks.
Wild dogs do the same throughout their ranges. But they do so especially at the extremes. This marking action appears to form territorial boundaries, which are generally respected by neighboring packs. Such scent markings seem to constitute "biological fences" erected by the animals themselves.
If the experiment to replicate natural scent barriers is successful, it might help protect not only the mere 5,000 to 6,000 wild dogs left in isolated pockets in Africa but perhaps also other predators that use scent to mark their territories.
The experiment is part of a research project in Botswana's Okavango Delta, a maze of riverine channels that eventually soak into the sand to form a vast oasis, rich in animal and plant life, in the northern extreme of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert.
The Okavango's wild dog population of about 800 makes up more than half of the estimated 1,500 left in northern Botswana and adjacent desert in Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Wild Dog Research Project
To promote the conservation of wild dogs that are in conflict with human communities, Seattle native John "Tico" McNutt started the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project in 1989. His research is supported in part by the National Geographic Society.
Living in a small field-research camp near the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in northern Botswana, McNutt uses radio telemetry and small aircraft, including an ultralight, to monitor a sub-population of about 180 wild dogs. The dogs make up 10 to 11 packs, ranging over an area of about 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers).
The project, seen as vital to the future development of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve and its surrounding wildlife management areas, is being carried out in close cooperation with local communities, tourist operators, and Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks.
South African environmentalist Ian Player says that if the experiment works, it could be of great help in saving wild dogs as they are reintroduced in other parts of southern Africa.
Any means of confining wild dogs to sanctuaries would be helpful, Player says. "These are magnificent beasts, to me in a way even more so than lions. I sincerely hope the experiment works."
McNutt, who received a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California in 1995, says habitat loss is the main reason wild dogs are so endangered. Lack of habitat causes them to leave what's left of wilderness areas as they search for foodbringing them up against human neighbors who may be nervous about the safety of their domestic herds.
People see predators as a danger to their domestic stock, McNutt said. The predators indeed often start catching livestock, mainly because the game they naturally prey on has been hunted out or has moved away because of competition for food with domestic animals.
Wild dogs hunt as a pack, and though they primarily prey on small and medium-sized antelope, they are able to catch and kill other ungulates that are considerably larger than themselves. The dogs can and do prey on livestock and even cattle.
Low Opinion of Wild Dogs
Making it worse for wild dogs is the low opinion people generally have of them, resulting in an attitude of kill-on-sight. Tragically, the dogs' seemingly trusting nature often makes them easy targets.
Human encroachment has further exposed the dogs to canine diseases such as rabies and canine distemper virus (CDV), which domestic dogs carry. Also, some wild dogs get run over on the roads cutting through territories where they used to roam freely.
The way wild dogs form their packs presents an important reason why scent marking could play an important part in safeguarding the species, according to McNutt.
The dogs disperse in groups of brothers or sisters, leaving their birth packs to find opposite-sex groups to join and form new packs with. These new packs then have to find and establish their own territories, and often the closest areas available are those that livestock farmers have cleared of wild dogs.
McNutt hopes that by using scent markings, people could keep new wild dog packs from moving into such areas. However, experiments will first be carried out in the wildlife reserve before being extended to livestock areas.
Initially the scent marking will be done with urine samples taken from resident wild dog packs, as it is not yet possible to synthetically reproduce the key elements within the highly complex scents the dogs secrete.
McNutt says his BioFence collaborator Megan Parker, a doctoral student at the University of Montana, is focusing on the biochemistry of scent marking. The samples are analyzed chemically to try to get a better understanding of the wild dogs' biochemical "language."
"Until such time as we can identify the important volatile compounds among the hundreds being found in urine scent marks, the proposal is to use real marks from known packs elsewhere in the population," McNutt said.
"We are still working on identifying complex molecules and differences between dominant and subordinate dogs, territorial boundary marks versus nonboundary marks, sex and age differences, and such. All of these are potentially important 'context' variables that we would like to have in hand when we attempt to 'move' wild dogs around in conflict areas," McNutt said.
"Results are slower than hoped, but we still have every expectation that the concept will provide a management tool that heretofore did not exist," McNutt said.
Finding out how the dogs use scent marks to keep out of each other's territories could prove important to wild dogs' survival. But McNutt says scent marks almost certainly contain considerably more, and very complex, information than just boundary signals.
"The general mechanism of territory marking depends on the highly mobile behavior of wild dogs and their highly developed olfactory capabilities," he says.
"The marks of the dominant male and female of a resident pack are undoubtedly the most salient signals. This has been shown experimentally and is illustrated in laboratory results, which show, for example, differences between dominants and subordinant marks from the same packs.
"They usually investigate the marks of neighbors, then proceed by moving on and placing their own marks periodically in similar areas. Large packs are more territorially belligerent than small packs, which are comparatively retiring when it comes to boundaries and marking.
"In general, the knowledge that there are neighbors present seems to be sufficient in most contexts for residents to 'bounce off' the boundary once having left an appropriate signal of their own pack's presence and its constitution," McNutt said.
McNutt adds that most large carnivores use scent marks to communicate with neighbors and avoid conflict by establishing boundaries.
"However, the specificity of olfactory communication is one of the main points we wish to make in our research. We humans, as a species that communicates primarily through verbal and auditory means, are essentially completely ignorant of the potential complexity and richness of olfactory chemical communication.
"While we have for years investigated the complexities and function of birdsong, for example, we have hardly scratched the surface of chemical communication, apart from pointing out that it exists," McNutt said. "Until we begin to appreciate and hopefully unravel the complexities of chemical communication, we will remain in the dark as to how mammals communicate with each other."
On the Trail of Africa's Endangered Wild Dogs
Rare-Dog Search Meets With Success, Then Tragedy
Revenge Killings: African Farmers Massacre Lions
Fierce Dogs Protect Livestock, Cheetahs In Africa
Related Web Sites
Botswana Wild Dog Research Project
The World Conservation Union
National Geographic Channel Be the Creature: Wild Dog
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