Ten African wild dog pups are getting a warm welcome at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago.
The lively pups, born on Thanksgiving Day, are currently off exhibit, with plenty of adult supervision from their mother and father, Kim and Digger, and Digger's brother Duke. [See more baby zoo animals .]
A few days ago, the 8-week-old pups got their first check-up from veterinarians, including routine vaccinations and sexing, which revealed them to be six males and four females.
The 10 puppies born at Brookfield are just one of three litters of the species that were born in North American zoos in 2010. All together, about 120 African wild dogs are in 37 accredited zoos across the continent.
"This litter is critically important to the managed population of African wild dogs in North America," said Amy Roberts, curator of mammals for the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages the Brookfield Zoo.
"We are excited about the role the puppies will play in inspiring a connection between our guests and these incredible animals, as well as communicating the plight of these dogs' counterparts in the wild," Roberts said.
African wild dogs are one of that continent's most endangered predators . Once common in virtually every environment in southern Africa, they now inhabit only the savannahs and grasslands.
A century ago, packs of 100 or more wild dogs could be seen roaming the Serengeti Plains. Today, packs average about 10 animals, and the total population on the Serengeti is probably fewer than 60. Research suggests there are between 3,000 and 5,000 free-ranging wild dogs in isolated populations in central, northeast and southern Africa.
Major threats to the species are habitat fragmentation, human interference (the dogs are often poisoned or snared, or hit by cars), the spread of disease from domestic dogs, and competition for prey from larger carnivores.
Puppies are born with a black and white coat that begins to change to a distinctive pattern of black, tan, dark brown and white after about a month. Like human fingerprints, no two dogs' coats are the same.
African wild dogs can be fierce to outsiders, but among their own they are far more gentle, using exaggerated submissive posturing and greeting ceremonies to reinforce the pack social structure. The benign social style is a marked difference from some of their canine cousins, like wolves, who rely on aggression to keep the peace.
Although each African wild dog pack has a dominant male and female, all adult members help raise pups and care for sick or elderly members of the group.
At Brookfield Zoo, the 10 puppies are still nursing from Mom, but they have begun accepting regurgitated food from all the adults, who are very protective of the young.
The public will get its first glimpse of the zoo's new additions this spring, when the pups go on exhibit.