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!

Mr. Green and Mr. Blu!
Mr. Green and Mr. Blu!

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


Francesco MazziniSimon W. TownsendZsófia VirányiFriederike Range

  • Highlights
  • 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 [5] 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.

18 thoughts on “Real meaning in a wolf’s howl.

  1. Interesting entry!
    Some people also don’t know that cats don’t communicate with each other through vocal sounds, except for the warning meows when they’re angry. With cats it’s all about the bodylanguage, as can be said for dogs.

    This is a very interesting insight in what we have yet to learn about animals all around us!


  2. It humanity they say over 90% of communication is non-verbal, and I reckon this is more so with animals.

    I have experimented with projecting different emotions at dogs, without the owner being aware, and I get amazingly consistent results, the dog will pick up the emotion by looking at your face and react accordingly.


  3. While homo fatuus brutus continues to consider itself master of the entire universe, we will never make any real progress in communicating with our fellow creatures. Only when (and if) we learn some humility will we ever improve on that front.

    Coincidentally I received an advice today from Dogwoof that the film Blackfish has been released on DVD. Though I’ve not seen this movie yet, the trailer and reviews I’ve read highlight the corrupting disconnect between the attitudes of corporate profit-seeking and what I would call ‘reality’.


  4. I’ve often thought we should consider that our animal friends are actually bilingual, sometimes multi-lingual.

    A dog or cat, for example, not only communicates with other dogs and cats, whether through body language, ears and tails, growls, hisses and other noises (can we even hear all the sounds they make to each other?), but also they learn our human language, body expression, scent, tone, words, and respond accordingly.

    Quite amazing!


      1. Excellent observation, Paul! Humanity used to know Earth’s language. That scientists are trying to understand the animals, and Earth, is back to what used to be, what needs to be!


  5. I am not surprised we know so little about how our animals communicate, when we Humans find is so difficult to communicate with each other Paul,…. A really interesting post Paul thank you


      1. Meaning we never really say what we mean. And families no longer sit and talk too busy with their heads in TV video games or IPods with ear phones on. We pass each other on walks and many look to the ground not wishing to make eye contact who will not say hello. That’s my meaning of us Humans who fail to communicate with each other.
        Sorry if words my be misspelt writing via moblie and so tiny. Sue


      2. Sue, you do know my previous reply was ‘tongue-in-cheek’! Just couldn’t resist! But what you say just now is so true. Which is why when a dog looks into your face with those beautiful, open eyes it is such an intimate connection in human terms.


      3. It was early in the morning When I ready your reply Paul lol and so I really wasn’t awake and thought you didnt understand what I had meant, 😉
        Just back from a long walk myself this afternoon, we have been near Chatsworth House watching the Red Arrows doing their air display, and along a walk met a beautiful mix breed dog who just bounded up to say hello. You always find dog owners say hello 🙂 and yet many out walking in couples or groups stare blindly ahead not wanting to catch your eye and mumble a response to your offered good morning!. I so love Dogs! 🙂


      4. Well at least I had the pleasure of another comment from you!

        That openness towards strangers is much better displayed in America, certainly in this part of the USA. My uneducated hunch is that is a carry-over from the early settlement days. When quickly meeting and assessing strangers was vital to group survival. Probably rubbish!


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