They were studying the dogs where they live in Botswana to see how they decide to go on a hunt. Like most carnivores, the wild dogs sleep a lot. But at some point one of the pack will start what is called a rally, getting all the other members excited and milling around as if they want to play.
Sometimes the rallies are successful, and off the pack goes. Sometimes the pack members lie down and go back to sleep. Neil R. Jordan of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, the senior author of the report, noticed that the successful rallies there seemed to have more sneezing.
Reena H. Walker, then an undergraduate research technician at Brown University, set to work gathering hard data. Dr. Jordan’s perception was right. By far, the best predictor of whether the dogs would actually go on a hunt was the number of sneezes.
Unlike the one-person, one-vote rules of human elections, members of the group were not limited to one sneeze. And if a dominant pack member started a rally, fewer sneezes were needed from the other dogs to get the hunt off the ground, Ms. Walker said, noting that there was some interplay “between dominance and democracy.”
Ms. Walker, who has now graduated, was working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust when she did the study. She said she hopes the results of this study, and others that enhance understanding of these endangered dogs will help in their conservation.
The sneezing is not the same as a human sneeze. It is a bit like the choo without the aah, an “audible, rapid forced exhalation through the nose” as Ms. Walker put it. And the scientists don’t know if it is voluntary or something that just happens, like a sneeze. So they can’t say it’s a true vote. But they can say that if you want to know if the dogs are going to move, counting sneezes is your best bet.
This is obviously not a parallel to voting on health care. But imagine a group of friends on a beach getting ready to wade into cold water. They talk and stretch and hop up and down, and push and nudge each other, until they either go in or lie back down.
Next time you’re at the beach, see if anyone sneezes.