African Wild Dog: Not the Hyena You Think It Is

By: Sascha Bos  | 
An African wild dog and its pack of young walk together
The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is often confused with the hyena but can be distinguished by its round ears and long legs. Manoj Shah / Getty Images

The African wild dog is one of the world's rarest mammals. At a glance, people unfamiliar with the species misidentify it as a hyena. While both animals are spotted, the African wild dog has round ears and longer legs than hyenas.

Famously elusive, the African wild dog hunts in packs to take down animals several times its size. Learn more about this unique and endangered member of the dog family.

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African Wild Dog Basics

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the Cape hunting dog or African hunting dog, is a carnivorous mammal in the Canidae family, the same family as coyotes, domestic dogs and wolves. Unlike other dogs, African wild dogs have only four toes on each foot.

The African wild dog's scientific name, Lycaon pictus, means "painted wolf." And they certainly look like painted dogs, with yellow fur splotched with black and white. Each African wild dog has its own unique coat pattern.

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With their long legs, African wild dogs are about 24 inches (60 centimeters) at the shoulder. They have rounded ears that help regulate their temperature and they weigh about 35 to 50 pounds (16 to 23 kilograms).

Where Do African Wild Dogs Live?

Historically, African wild dogs were distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, they are virtually extinct in North and West Africa, with the largest populations found in southern Africa and southern East Africa.

What Do African Wild Dogs Eat?

The African wild dogs hunt antelope, such as dik-diks, duikers, impalas, greater kudus, steenboks, Thomson's gazelles and common wildebeests. They may snack on hares and lizards.

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Why Are African Wild Dogs Endangered?

In 1990, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared African wild dogs endangered due to habitat fragmentation.

African wild dogs face a phenomenon known as the "edge effect." Because African wild dogs travel long distances in search of prey, their range is naturally very large. IUCN provides the following example of the edge effect:

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"Simple geometry dictates that a reserve of 5,000 km² [1,930 square miles] contains no point more than 40 km [25 miles] from its borders — a distance well within the range of distances travelled by a pack of African Wild Dogs in their usual ranging behavior. Thus, from an African Wild Dog's perspective, a reserve of this size (fairly large by most standards) would be all edge."

The edge effect leads to human-wildlife conflict and keeps African wild dog populations small, which makes packs more vulnerable to infectious disease.

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How African Wild Dog Packs Work

An African wild dog pack consists of an alpha male and alpha female (a monogamous breeding pair) and their offspring. Other pack members are nonbreeding adults, and the entire pack helps care for the African wild dog pups.

If an alpha dies, wild dog packs typically break apart. Packs may also splinter if they get too large, as was the case for EWD 1355 and her sisters, African wild dogs who traveled more than 1,300 miles in hopes of starting a new pack, as reported by the New York Times.

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