If a wolf is watching, don’t look in the direction of the chickens hiding in the coop. Wolves know to follow a human’s gaze to find hidden objects, according to recent research.

Following the gaze of another creature can be vitally important in the wild. It can tell an animal where prey is, or the direction of a threat. But figuring out that there might be something hidden behind what another animal is staring at takes talent. Scientists consider it to be a more advanced thought process, previously seen in only a few animals, such as humans, chimpanzees and ravens.

Animal behaviorists Friederike Range and Zsofi Viranyi of the University of Vienna, found that captive-raised wolves would detour around an obstacle if it was in another wolf’s or even a human’s line-of-sight. If there was nothing interesting there, the wolves stopped responding to repeated looks.

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If the human was staring blankly, though, the wolves didn’t stop reacting. As young as 14 weeks, wolves followed the direction of a blank stare, and only later would develop the skill to look around watched objects. This supported the idea that two separate thought processes were being used to follow different types of gazes, according to the researchers.

The new information helps researchers understand the origins of gaze following abilities and the evolutionary pressures shaping coordination amongst social animals. The next question is whether they know we know they know where the chickens are hiding.

The research was published in PLoS ONE.

IMAGE 1: Grey Wolf, Canis Lupus (Wikimedia Commons)