What would you get if you crossed a bear, a dog, and an otter?
The Bush Dog!
The bush dog is a fascinating creature that provides a look into the evolutionary history of one of our favorite animal families: the canine. The bush dog, also known as Speothos venaticus, is an elusive species found in the Central and South American regions. Notably, it holds a unique position in the canine family as the most primitive living dog. That is to say, these creatures are one of the oldest in their evolutionary branch, showing fewer of the specialized characteristics that developed in canines later on. Instead, their features show resemblance to otters, bears, and other mammals from which they all descended.
However, there’s nothing ‘primitive’ or crude about the bush dog’s behavior and adaptations. These are smart, social creatures with complex family structures and group dynamics, clever tactics for hunting in packs and taking down tricky prey, and special skills suited to their water-based ecosystems. And in my opinion, they are extremely cute!
A surprising find
Western scientists first recognized the bush dog through Pleistocene era fossils found in Brazilian caves. Marveling at the features of this canid, so unlike the dogs we know today, they believed bush dogs to be an extinct member of the family. However, living specimens of this fascinating species were later identified. The bush dog is the only living member of the genus Speothos, and its closest living relative is believed to be the Maned Wolf, another rare canid of South America.
The bush dog’s range includes Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela, but they tend to be quite rare except in certain areas of Suriname, Guyana, and Peru. Unfortunately because of their relative sparseness, much of our knowledge has come from observations of bush dog populations in captivity.
Also known as “water dogs” or “savannah dogs”, bush dogs inhabit wetter areas, including seasonally flooded forests, wet savannahs, and temperate grasslands near bodies of water. They are excellent swimmers with partially webbed toes, well suited to these habitats, and they often enter the water to hunt their prey. They are also sometimes referred to as “vinegar dogs” for the strong vinegar smell of bush dogs’ urine, which they use to mark territory.
Strength in numbers
These elusive creatures tend to be active during the day, sleeping together at night in hollows or burrows that other animals have left behind. They live in social groups of up to 12 members and demonstrate exceptional teamwork during hunting, allowing them to take down prey larger than themselves, like tapirs or peccary. In the Pantanal wetlands, one of their primary prey is the nine-banded armadillo, whose dens conveniently provide a great place to rest at night.
While hunting for large rodents like capybara, bush dogs typically move in pairs and groups, but in more open areas, solitary hunting for small rodents is occasionally observed. Aside from rodents, they also sometimes prey on birds or small snakes, with a considerable variation in diet due to available prey in different parts of their home range. And although they are carnivorous, bush dogs have even been observed eating papaya and banana. After all, who doesn’t love a fruity snack?
You can get a firsthand look at their methods in this short, captivating video:
The bush dog’s communication relies on a diverse range of contact calls, using high pitched ‘peeping’ and squeaking noises. This helps packs coordinate despite the challenges of visual communication in forested environments.
Bush dogs’ family structure is based on monogamous pairs, living within extended family groups. The alpha female who leads the group is the only one to produce offspring, with an average litter size of 3-4 pups born after a gestation period of up to 67 days. The other females in the group experience hormonally repressed estrous (or pre-ovulation) cycles, which keeps them from reproducing.
Non-breeding group members contribute to the care of the pups, with males providing food to the mother in the den. The young are nursed for about 5 months and reach reproductive maturity at one year of age.
As a predator, the bush dog plays a vital role in regulating the numbers of their prey species, contributing to the balance and stability of the ecosystem. However, due to its rarity and ongoing threats, the bush dog’s population numbers continue to decrease, leading to its classification as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Sadly, bush dogs face several serious threats to their survival. Human encroachment and habitat loss due to large-scale agriculture and conversion of land into pasture pose significant risks. Illegal poaching, pollution of waterways, domestic dog predation, and the risk of lethal diseases contracted from domestic dogs also contribute to their population decline. Conservation efforts are essential to protect this unique and precious species, ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to witness and appreciate the wonders of the bush dog.
If you have a canine companion you love, maybe you can appreciate this long-lost cousin of theirs. And even if you’re more of a cat person, I hope you enjoy getting to know these living relics.
For all the permutations of beautiful, strange, adaptable life,
Maya Dutta is an environmental advocate and ecosystem restorer working to spread understanding on the key role of biodiversity in shaping the climate and the water, carbon, nutrient and energy cycles we rely on. She is passionate about climate change adaptation and mitigation and the ways that community-led ecosystem restoration can fight global climate change while improving the livelihood and equity of human communities. Having grown up in New York City and lived in cities all her life, Maya is interested in creating more natural infrastructure, biodiversity, and access to nature and ecological connection in urban areas.