Real meaning in a wolf’s howl.
Staying with the theme of communication.
I have often noticed how ideas come along and are then reinforced by other materials and comments. This struck me (again) as follows. In my post about the fabulous, loving bond between Jeff Guidry and his eagle Freedom one of the comments was from Patrice Ayme, and I quote:
Birds have completely different brains. Still, the smartest birds are more clever than most primates. And many parrots speak (although we have not learned their language yet).
Then going on to add:
Parrot language studies have progressed enough to tell us that there is something huge going on. They apparently use names, as dolphins do.
Certainly Jean would verify the amount of talking that goes on between our two budgerigars here at home!
Then in yesterday’s post The knowing of dogs, I referred to research that indicated that empathy between those that we know and trust, (a) can be measured, and (b) that “our minds are partly defined by their intersections with other minds.” I went on in that post to speculate that maybe dogs ‘reading’ the minds of humans that they know and trust wasn’t so far-fetched.
Then along comes this from ScienceDaily:
Wolves Howl Because They Care: Social Relationship Can Explain Variation in Vocal Production
Aug. 22, 2013 — When a member of the wolf pack leaves the group, the howling by those left behind isn’t a reflection of stress but of the quality of their relationships. So say researchers based on a study of nine wolves from two packs living at Austria’s Wolf Science Center that appears in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, on August 22.
The findings shed important light on the degree to which animal vocal production can be considered as voluntary, the researchers say.
“Our results suggest the social relationship can explain more of the variation we see in howling behavior than the emotional state of the wolf,” says Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. “This suggests that wolves, to a certain extent, may be able to use their vocalizations in a flexible way.”
Scientists have known very little about why animals make the sounds that they do. Are they uncontrollable emotional responses? Or do animals have the ability to change those vocalizations based on their own understanding of the social context?
At the Wolf Science Center, human handlers typically take individual wolves out for walks on a leash, one at a time. On those occasions, they knew, the remaining pack mates always howl.
To better understand why, Range and her colleagues measured the wolves’ stress hormone levels. They also collected information on the wolves’ dominance status in the pack and their preferred partners. As they took individual wolves out for long walks, they recorded the reactions of each of their pack mates.
Those observations show that wolves howl more when a wolf they have a better relationship with leaves the group and when that individual is of high social rank. The amount of howling did not correspond to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“Our data suggest that howling is not a simple stress response to being separated from close associates but instead may be used more flexibly to maintain contact and perhaps to aid in reuniting with allies,” Range says.
For those that want to read the original research paper then it is available over at Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.
Wolf Howling Is Mediated by Relationship Quality Rather Than Underlying Emotional Stress
- We investigated the influence of social and physiological factors on wolf howling
- Wolves howl more to keep contact with affiliated partners and with pack leaders
- Howling is mediated by the social relationship not cortisol level of the howlers
- This pattern indicates that wolves have some voluntary control of their howling
While considerable research has addressed the function of animal vocalizations, the proximate mechanisms driving call production remain surprisingly unclear. Vocalizations may be driven by emotions and the physiological state evoked by changes in the social-ecological environment [1,2], or animals may have more control over their vocalizations, using them in flexible ways mediated by the animal’s understanding of its surrounding social world [3,4]. While both explanations are plausible and neither excludes the other, to date no study has attempted to experimentally investigate the influence of both emotional and cognitive factors on animal vocal usage. We aimed to disentangle the relative contribution of both mechanisms by examining howling in captive wolves. Using a separation experiment and by measuring cortisol levels, we specifically investigated whether howling is a physiological stress response to group fragmentation  and whether it is driven by social factors, particularly relationship quality [6,7]. Results showed that relationship quality between the howler and the leaving individual better predicted howling than did the current physiological state. Our findings shed important light on the degree to which animal vocal production can be considered as voluntary.
So, don’t know about you, but it all seems to be suggesting how little we know about how animals communicate with the world around them.