What’s in a name? Why we call them painted wolves

‘Why are they called painted wolves and not African wild dogs?!’

That’s a question we’ve been asked a lot since the release of Dynasties.

painted wolves
Tammy (alpha female) and Twiza (alpha male) stand proudly as if for fora family portrait. (Tim in foreground). © Nick Lyon for BBC Dynasties
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With only 6,600 painted wolves left in the world, they are Africa’s second most endangered carnivore (just behind the Ethiopian wolf). For an animal so few in number, seem to have more common names than any other predator. These 10 names are just the English language titles:

  • Cape Hunting Dog
  • African Hunting Dog
  • Hunting Dog
  • African Wild Dog
  • Wild Dog
  • Hyena Dog
  • Painted Dog
  • Painted Hunting Dog
  • Painted Wolf
  • Ornate Wolf

Their scientific name is Lycaon pictus – which translates directly as painted wolf and reflects their mottled caramel and brown fur. The Lycaon genus is more closely related to wolves than domestic dogs. On top of this, everything from their phylogeny (evolutionary development) to their behaviour, makes them more suitably named as ‘wolves’. Funnily enough, they are often confused for hyenas (which aren’t canids and are most closely related to cats and mongoose).

painted wolf
The Old Matriarch - Tait at 10.5 years old, coming to the end of herhugely successful reign. She kept the peace in Mana Pools for many years. © Nick Lyon for BBC Dynasties

Like the movement to “rebrand” killer whales to orca, painted wolves have had to had their fair share of bad press and misunderstanding and some believe a fresh and fixed name might improve their chances of survival.

painted wolves
Tait the Matriach of the Dynasty (camera left) plays with her daughter Taitjunior. © Nick Lyon for BBC Dynasties

There is a frequent misconception that painted wolves are feral dogs, so using a more ‘wild’ name is increasingly preferred. There is a growing number of people interested in the conservation of Lycaon pictus that use this translation as the common name, to describe the species. Some argue that this shift may help promote positive attention to a fascinating and very threatened species, which has suffered persecution for so long.

The team who made this episode wanted to create a film that would help people look at these wonderful and endangered animals in a new light.

Featured image © Nick Lyon