Dogs are among the most familiar domestic animals, but most wild canines that evolved naturally in remote ecosystems are among the least known animals to the general public. Wild, non-feral dog species are fascinating and sometimes mysterious creatures, offering a treasure trove of surprising facts to naturalists. Here are some of the most curious canids around, ones that prove nature still belongs to the dogs.
Asiatic Wild Dogs, or “Dholes,” resemble pariah dogs, or even a shepherd breed. With a fully wild ancestry, they place in a different genus than wolves or man’s best friend. These canines have red fur and weigh between 10 & 25 kilograms (22 to 55 pounds). Their piercing calls lend them the name “Whistling Dog”. This species is native to jungles, woodland, and open country habitats across Eastern Asia and the Indian subcontinent. These dogs have no interest in humans, but their powerful jaws and aggression allow them to bring down outrageously large prey.
Although threatened by humans, their defense skills are fearsome. Tigers may be driven away from kills, and are known to have been killed by packs of these medium-sized dogs. The Dhole represents several subspecies across its range, which includes grasslands, bush and rainforest environments.
9. Tanuki (Racoon Dog)
Asia is home to a unique species that finds no comparable relatives among wild dogs. Unique to its genus, the Raccoon Dog is widely considered to be an ancient, ancestral form of canine. Weighing about 10 kg (22 lbs), the Raccoon Dog looks exactly like its namesake animal. The stocky build, bushy tail and pointed nose combine with a striking mask and completely raccoon-like body markings. This species lacks powerful jaws and teeth, and feeds on plants, berries and animal material instead of bringing down larger prey like many dogs.
The habitat used by this creature includes not only lake shores and forests, but urban areas. This species has been widely used in the fur trade, and was introduced to Europe, where it has flourished. Animal welfare is a serious concern, with inhumane treatment and depletion by the Asian fur trade a growing concern. The adaptations that create the resemblance to a raccoon give this animal status as one of nature’s best examples of convergent evolution.
8. Short-Eared Dog
Native to South America’s forested Amazon regions is an elongated, shy brown canine with an almost otter-like build. The elusive Short-Eared Dog is the size of a small fox, and sticks to undisturbed lowland forest environments that are sometimes threatened by human disturbance. Short-Eared Dogs have expressive eyes and a non-threatening expression. Not a fierce dog, this canine prefers fruit and carrion.
Surprisingly little is known by ecologists about the biology and life history of these secretive, remotely-dwelling forest animals. Boa constrictors are possible predators, while jaguars will apparently not hesitate to claim a doggie dinner. Related to Bush Dogs, “zorros” display extra-long, bushy tails for balance, while a long nose and tiny ears lend a somewhat weasel-like appearance. Tame research subjects walked on leashes clearly resemble dachshunds at first glance.
7. Bush Dog
In a sub-classification of true dogs by itself, the Bush Dog of South American forests is also found near rivers, cerrado, and pampas habitats. The animal is most numerous in Suriname. Once thought to be extinct, this 20–30 cm (8–12 in) tall, 5–8 kg (11–18 lb) mysterious dog is tiny and stocky, with a stubby tail. The animal’s appearance is somewhat pig-like due to its tiny ears, while a frontal view recalls a bulldog or a tiny grizzly bear.
The killing power of these small dogs is surprising. Despite their low weight, Bush Dogs are known to have brought down 100 kilogram tapir and ostrich-like rheas. More regular prey includes the world’s largest rodent, the enormous capybara, and a range of cavy-like mammals that share their habitat. Human attacks are not known. Interestingly enough, the closest living relative of these compact dogs, now being bred in captivity to increase numbers, may be the stilt-legged Maned Wolf.
6. South American Grey Fox
In nature, things are not always what they seem. Many modern animal names still reflect easily-made errors in appearance-based description. The South American Grey Fox and several close relatives are known as “zorros” or “false foxes”. These canines are in fact true dogs, closely related to wolves. Like Darwin’s Finches, these “miniature wolves” have radiated into a wide-ranging set of fascinating adaptive forms.
The handsome South American Grey Fox, or “Chilla” is found in cold desert and sparsely vegetated areas in Chile and Argentina in the shadow of the Andes, where they hunt small to medium sized prey including birds and reptiles. Chilla are crepuscular and extremely hardy. The animal is scarce and harmless in its native range, but where introduced in the Falkland Islands, it has become a threat to livestock and native species alike.
5. Darwin’s Fox
The Darwin’s Fox is small and dark, weighing no more than 3 kg (6.6lb) but its fearsome expression and proportionally large head on a smaller body with short legs identifies it as a close relative of the wolf. Notably changed by natural selection and named after Charles Darwin himself, strange proportions of this miniature wolf relative make it an effective hunter of birds and mammals, while fruit is never off limits.
Darwin’s Fox is the most range-restricted dog species on the planet. One of the “zorro” or false fox species of South America, this species is found only in Chile’s Nahuelbuta national park, and on the island of Chiloe several hundred kilometers south. The rarest dog in the world numbers at only 250 mature individuals, according to the IUCN Red List. Attacks and disease transfer by domestic dogs are one of the primary threats to this wild species.
4. Tree Fox
The North American grey fox or “tree fox” is an entirely different animal than the lupine South American grey fox. A true fox rather than a wolf ally, the North American grey fox is a cat imitator. While the dog family is highly terrestrial, this create can race up tree trunks and perch on thin branches with its short legs attached to a rather typical-looking fox body. Like a magpie, its long tail adds balance as the tree fox forages for prey as small as insects. Small mammals such as squirrels are frequent catches, as this arboreal canid hunts them with much greater success than earthbound domestic dogs. During the summer, fruits and seeds may actually play a larger role than animal prey in the diet of this widely-distributed species.
3. Bat-Eared Fox
The Bat-Eared Fox finds itself in a high ranking tier of oddity as far as wild dogs are concerned. Found in a variety of open woodland, Savannah and brushy habitats across South, East and West Africa, the Bat-Eared Fox is a nocturnal species with bizarre adaptations. Resembling a bat, with large, sound detecting ears, this animal has almost entirely abandoned typical canine fare for a diet comprised mostly of insects and other invertebrates. The small, delicate jaws and agile build of this 3.5 to 4 kg (7.7 to 8.8 lb) species make it well-suited to pursuing and capturing most small arthropods, such as beetles and termites.
Bat-Eared Foxes may live over 12 years, and display a contrast between dirt browns and black highlights. The fox depends on an insect-rich, natural ecosystem which is unfortunately being lost to agriculture. Increased conservation efforts are important to the stability of this unique species.
South America’s second-largest wild dog after the Maned Wolf, the Culpeo weighs up to 13.5 kg (30 lb) with lengths of 165 cm (65 in) reported. The nickname “Andean Wolf” has been lent to this long-toothed species, which has a dark tail and a handsome grizzled grey appearance towards the lower back and rump. This striking predator originally inhabited foothills along the both sides of the Andes as its primary range between Columbia and Tierra del Fuego, with introductions on the Falkland Islands. Increases in rabbit populations are believed to have assisted in the spread of this species to lowland regions.
Attacks on young Guanacos add to its primary diet of good-sized rodents and rabbits. Sheep may be hunted on occasion, which has resulted in population reducing incidents of persecution. While rare in certain areas, this beautiful and imposing wild dog is fortunately not endangered.
1. African Wild Dog
While better known than many other species on this list, the African Wild Dog is a fascinating and endangered species that deserves a closer look. Known alternatively as the “Painted Wolf”, this is the largest wild dog on the planet apart from the Grey Wolf. This species is not as genetically unique as its weird appearance suggests. It is in fact a true dog, allied to the Grey Wolf, Dingo, and Coyote, rather than being a primitive canid.
This fierce-looking, bat-eared dog is the most social species of canine, outranking even wolves, as it cooperatively hunts in groups of up to 40 dogs. Its habitat does not only include plains, but mountains and riparian forests. Sadly, endless persecution, road accidents, and distemper outbreaks have curtailed the survivability of this showy and exotic species, which only numbers at around 5,500 members. Their survival depends heavily on the extensive conservation efforts of the African Wildlife Foundation.