Dholes: Why the Whistles?

The first morning I met the dholes (Asian wild dogs) I would be studying during my summer fellowship at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, two of the adult dogs were trotting around their enclosure with their four puppies, playing one of the most intense games of chase I had ever seen. In the midst of all the canine chaos (which I would come to see was quite typical in the mornings), I heard a very odd noise. Having done some preliminary research on dholes, I knew they were nicknamed the “whistling hunters” because of their use of whistles to communicate. But I must admit that the first time I heard a dhole whistle, I was surprised to realize that the sound had come out of the dog right in front of me and not from the giant bird enclosure down the hill.

It was exciting to see how many readers were interested in my project on dhole behavior after my first post (see Dholes: Whistling Dogs). Many readers were especially curious to hear what a dhole whistle sounds like and requested that I post the sound. It’s been a busy few weeks for me as I’ve been wrapping up my project, but in between all the lab work, statistical analysis, and paper writing, I finally had a chance to record some dhole vocalizations.

The Behavioral Biology Division of the Institute for Conservation Research relies on sound data frequently for its various projects, so I was able to utilize some equipment to record the dholes’ whistling. Using the Division’s sound ecology lab, I was then able to create a sound file of a dhole whistle. The clip features Ivana, one of the adult female dholes. Please enjoy!

Now that you’ve been able to hear a dhole whistle, you might be wondering why the dogs communicate like this. The limited research that has been done on dholes has indicated that the whistling is a form of communication among pack members. For wild dholes, this whistle-based talking seems to be used most frequently during hunting. Dholes are a social pack animal that hunt together to capture prey. This whistling seems to be their way of communicating with each other in order to have a successful hunt. As dhole hunting groups are able to work together to consistently bring down prey much larger than an individual dhole could, they must be communicating effectively thanks to these whistles.

But even when they are not hunting, dholes are extremely vocal animals. Both in the wild and in the zoo setting, pack members communicate often. Researchers aren’t sure why this is; dholes just seem to be an especially social canine species.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is still much that is unknown about dholes and even less is known about their vocalizations. An entire study could be done on dhole vocalization patterns alone—and several studies have been done at other institutions—but there is so much that we don’t understand. Because dholes are such vocal animals, the whistles, yaps, and other interesting sounds these dogs make are no doubt an important piece to better understanding the species and how we may be able to help save this canine from extinction.

My summer fellowship with the Behavioral Biology Division is quickly coming to an end. Although I am extremely sad that this amazing adventure is drawing to a close, I am excited to share some of the findings from my project with you. Check back soon for a post to see if visual barriers affect dhole behavior!

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 Institute for Conservation Research.

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