Montana State University

MSU professor continues to spotlight African wild dogs

September 16, 2014 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

African wild dogs are one of the predators being researched by Montana State University professor Scott Creel and the MSU-affiliated Zambian Carnivore Programme. Evidence suggests this evolutionarily unique species is one of the most social mammals on Earth, with behaviors that make it the mammalian equivalent of honeybees. Scott Creel, a Montana State University professor of ecology who studies key African predators, works with a sedated African wild dog in Zambia. Creel is one of three principal investigators on a $1 million National Science Foundation grant that is helping the Zambian Carnivore Programme to study predators and their prey in Zambia's national parks.

African wild dogs are one of the predators being researched by Montana State University professor Scott Creel and the MSU-affiliated Zambian Carnivore Programme. Evidence suggests this evolutionarily unique species is one of the most social mammals on Earth, with behaviors that make it the mammalian equivalent of honeybees.

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BOZEMAN – Scott Creel and the Montana State University-affiliated Zambian Carnivore Programme are continuing their long effort to raise the profile of key predators in Africa, particularly African wild dogs, a little-studied and unique predator.

Creel, an MSU professor of ecology who recently returned from the field research season in Zambia, had some help spreading news about this species that evidence suggests split off the canine evolutionary line about three million years ago. In August, the New York Times reporter Natalie Angier spoke with Creel and other African wild dog experts for a story on the highly social predators. In the article, Creel described recent research showing that wild dog packs are essentially the mammalian equivalent of a honeybee hive, with non-breeding adults working so hard to raise the pack’s offspring that they compromise their own survival. 

“The evolution of cooperation has been extensively studied for 50 years, and it is very rare for a mammal to trade its own survival for the benefit of its relatives,” Creel said.

During her visit to Zambia this summer, Angier became interested in the (International Union for Conservation of Nature) population estimates for wild dogs, which suggest that their numbers have possibly recovered somewhat over the past 20 years, Creel said.

“The big question is how are wild dog populations doing? I think the answer is part good news, partly bad news, and partly no news,” said Creel, who began studying African wild dogs in 1990 in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, where he found the continent’s largest remaining population. “The good news is that African wild dog numbers haven’t obviously gone down, and they’ve reappeared in a few places where they had disappeared. The bad news is that their success may be the result of losses of other top predators, such as lions and hyenas. Then there’s the fact that we have no reliable counts for many important populations – that’s the no news part of the story.  We really need better and more extensive data.”

The lack of firm data on wild dogs, as well as on other predators and prey species, underscores the importance of the field-based Zambian Carnivore Programme being run by Matt Becker, who graduated from MSU in 2008 with a doctorate in ecology. ZCP studies five key African carnivores – lions, leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs and cheetahs – and 21 prey species.

Creel is one of three principal investigators on a $1 million National Science Foundation grant that is currently helping to fund ZCP’s fieldwork and support a group of MSU graduate students who split time between Zambia and Bozeman. Elias Rosenblatt, Egil Dröge and Zambians Wigganson Matandiko and Jassiel M’soka are currently working toward masters or doctorate degrees as part of the MSU-ZCP collaboration.

From a conservation perspective, Creel said ZCP’s goal is to provide the data needed for Zambia to manage and protect African carnivores and their prey species. From the side of pure science, ZCP’s research is working to shed light on the sometimes-subtle ways that predators affect prey and vice versa.   

“Research all over the world is revealing that the loss of top carnivores causes fundamental changes to ecosystems,” Creel said. “Zambia is dealing with these problems a lot better than most nations.”

Contact: Scott Creel, (406) 994-7033, screel@montana.edu.