Howling wolves cry out to keep in touch

Researchers say howl of the wolf indicates quality of relationship

A Grey Wolf at Dublin Zoo Winter. Dublin Zoo has its own pack of eight wolves and their pre-dawn howling chorus is a “beautiful and magnificent” sound says the zoo’s director Leo Oosterweghel. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

A Grey Wolf at Dublin Zoo Winter. Dublin Zoo has its own pack of eight wolves and their pre-dawn howling chorus is a “beautiful and magnificent” sound says the zoo’s director Leo Oosterweghel. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Fri, Aug 23, 2013, 10:19

The lonesome howl of the wolf doesn’t mean the animal is sad or distressed, in fact it is akin to a Twitter shout-out with the yelping animals giving a send-off to a departing pack member.

It isn’t about stress it is about the quality of their relationships, say researchers based at Austria’s Wolf Science Centre.

Scientists have long sought to understand why animals make the various noises they do, how to interpret the vocalisations they make in different circumstances.

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Dublin Zoo has its own pack of eight wolves and their pre-dawn howling chorus is a “beautiful and magnificent” sound says the zoo’s director Leo Oosterweghel. The Dublin pack break into song typically at two to three in the morning with the sound travelling “many, many kilometres”, eh says. They howl in harmony, building up to a crescendo before the din slowly dies away.

They sound so plaintive that it seems they must be unhappy, but this is not the case based on the Austrian findings.

“Our results suggest the social relationship can explain more of the variation we see in howling behaviour than the emotional state of the wolf,” says Prof Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

The researchers studied a pack of nine wolves, taking various wolves out for a long walk and gauging the reaction of the others. They noted howling behaviour and they also tested the animals’ saliva for the presence of stress hormones. Details of their findings are published this evening (thurs) in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

The howling started once the pack member disappeared but a pattern emerged. The chief howlers were always the wolves who got along best with the missing pack member, with different members of the chorus taking the lead depending on who was missing. There was a general howl-out though if one of the lead wolves went away.

Stress was not the driver based on the saliva analysis, Prof Range said. Instead howling seemed to provide a way to keep in touch with the missing pack member, with that wolf’s best friends making the greatest racket.

The researchers also suggested that the wolfish shout-out might provide a sound-based beacon to help the wandering wolf find its way back to the safety of the pack.

*Audio file produced by Colette Kinsella for RTÉ Radio 1’s The Curious Ear