Wolf Species Howl in Distinct Dialects

The largest ever study of canid howling finds the animals use repertoires of sounds that are unique to their species.

Wolf species have distinctive howling repertoires that function like dialects, finds the biggest study ever done on canid howling.

A research team from the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and India ran more than 2,000 different recorded howls from 13 canid species and subspecies (the canid family includes wolves, jackals, and domestic dogs) through a software algorithm that boiled them down to 21 howl types (depending on pitch and other characteristics).

They found that different wolf species use the howl types in ways that are specific to them. Timber wolves, for example, use a preponderance of low, flat howls, as opposed to higher vocals used by red wolves.

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The scientists said their findings could aid in conservation efforts. For example, while most of the vocal dialects they studied were distinct enough between species to prevent confusion, a few were so similar that they could help fuel interbreeding between different species.

Red wolves and coyotes were such a case. In the study, their howling dialects overlapped significantly.

Efforts to revive populations of the critically endangered red wolf have been stymied due to interbreeding with coyotes. The howling overlap between red wolf and coyote, said study lead Arik Kershenbaum, from the University of Cambridge, "may be one reason why they are so likely to mate with each other, and perhaps we can take advantage of the subtle differences in howling behavior we have now discovered to keep the populations apart."

The researchers also said playback recordings might be used to mimic territorial sounds, perhaps convincing wolf packs to steer clear of livestock.

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Kershenbaum and his colleagues think the howling study could also teach us more about the evolution of human language.

"Wolves may not be close to us taxonomically, but ecologically their behavior in a social structure is remarkably close to that of humans. That's why we domesticated dogs: They are very similar to us," said Kershenbaum.

"Understanding the communication of existing social species is essential to uncovering the evolutionary trajectories that led to more complex communication in the past, eventually leading to our own linguistic ability," he added.

Currently, Kershenbaum and colleagues are using new recording methods to try to figure out what the howling types actually mean, what they communicate between animals -- a challenging task, he said, given that it's "virtually impossible" to follow wolf packs in the wild.

The team's work has been published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

Even gray wolves like to cool off in the summer with juicy watermelons, as long as those melons are stuffed with pig ears, cheese and dog biscuits. The Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana raises the canids in captivity for research and educational purposes. Every July, the wolves get a watermelon filled with goodies.

This wolf's name is Renki.

Wolfgang, the watermelon-wielding wolf shown here, gets more than just a snack. He puts his natural instincts and abilities to use when presented with the challenge of digging treats out of a melon.

"Giving the wolves enrichment materials, like watermelons, presents the animals with an opportunity to make choices," Elizabeth Rose, the Wolf Park's managing director, told Discovery News. "Giving animals in captivity the chance to make choices helps reduce boredom and keeps their minds in shape, as well as their bodies."

Although wolves tend to hunt livelier prey than watermelons in the wild, the animals use many of the same motor skills and social behaviors they would use while foraging, hunting and sharing a kill.

Renki tends to get the most exited when he gets his watermelon treat, Rose said.

Renki defends his melon, much like a wild wolf would defend a hunk of elk. The Wolf Park staff explains the animals' behaviors to visitors during the melon party.

The Wolf Park opened in 1972 and has held the Watermelon Party for 13 years. The idea for the party came after park staff noted that the wolves were looking longingly at watermelon slices that the humans were eating during a July 4th celebration.

Rose noted that normally the staff don't eat in front of the wolves. However, on that 4th of July someone decided to let the wolf try some watermelon and a tradition was born.

The wolves will receive another seasonal treat in autumn, when the Wolf Park throws the Pumpkin Party.

Life isn't all fruit parties for these wolves. They help scientists research the behavior of canids, the animal group that contains dogs.

Some recent research has focused on the ability of wolves to learn from other wolves, as well as comparisons between dog and wolf behavior in relation to humans.

An Australian shepherd dog may be able to outwit an Irish setter, but research suggests wolves are really the top-dogs in intelligence compared with their domesticated cousins, according to Rose.

Now for a human intelligence test: What is the linguistic connection between this cantaloupe and Fiona, the wolf that is gnawing on the melon?

Answer: The word cantaloupe derived from the Italian for "singing wolf."

The village of Cantalupo, Italy may be where the melon was first bred. The village might have gotten its name from wolves that once roamed the area.

Now, real singing wolves rarely howl around Cantalupo, Italy for the same reasons that wolves face danger in many areas around the world.

In the U.S. wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Wyoming now allow some degree of wolf hunting.

Despite humans, wolves still maintain a huge range over North America, Europe and Asia. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature list gray wolves as a species of least concern.