We are all familiar with the barks, growls, woofs, and whines that members of the canid family produce. But have you ever heard a dog whistle? Would you believe there is a group of canines that uses this call so frequently that they are famous for their whistling? The canines I’m alluding to are dholes, or Asiatic wild dogs! If you haven’t heard of a dhole (pronounced “dole”), you are definitely not alone. Just a short while ago I didn’t even know what a dhole was, and now I am spending over 20 hours a week with these magnificent whistling canines!
Dholes are a medium-size dog but actually look rather fox-like—with a red-brown coat, a white neck and stomach, and a thick, bushy tail. In the wild, dholes are rarely seen; this is because dholes are extremely skittish, often taking cover in the brush whenever they sense anything (and I do mean anything!) remotely out of the ordinary. But besides their anxious disposition, dholes are hard to locate because they are endangered, and their numbers in the wild are only decreasing.
This is where I come in! By studying the behaviors of the nine dholes at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, I am adding to what is currently only a small knowledge base about dholes, especially dholes living in zoos (the Wild Animal Park is one of just a few institutions in North America to house these animals). This information can then be used at other facilities that have dholes in order to maximize care for this endangered species, helping them to live healthier lives and to produce more offspring to increase the population.
The Park’s dholes are housed at an offsite facility—which, unfortunately, means that the dholes are not viewable by the public. At this facility, the dholes are split into three enclosures: a family group (father, mother, and four six-month-old puppies), a male/female pair, and then a single male dhole. Their yards are next to one another and divided only by chain link fencing. The separation of the dholes is necessary for social reasons and breeding purposes, but being such social animals, this layout might affect how they behave. My study is focused on examining dhole behavior and seeing how those behaviors, as well as the space utilization of their yards, changes when visual barriers are constructed between the enclosures.
My past research experience includes behavioral studies of Asian elephants and hormonal studies on African lions. I am excited to be working with the Institute this summer, and I am truly enjoying studying the dholes. I am interested to discover how removing visual access to other enclosures will affect the dholes’ behavior over time—and I hope I’ve got you interested, too! I will keep you posted throughout the summer as I find out more through my observations, so check back for updates!
Katie Graham is a biology major at the University of Portland and the 2010 Neeper Endowed Fellow working in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read a previous post, Chinese Dholes.