Wolves are inherently more tolerant than dogs are, according to new research that helps explain why wolves are so good at cooperating with each other.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, runs counter to the idea that domestication has made dogs more social and tolerant. Since the ancestor of dogs and wolves likely already had those skills, other factors, such as losing fear of humans and readily accepting us as social partners, could explain why dogs make better pets than wolves.
"Wolves cooperate more (than dogs do) in terms of breeding, defending territories and probably hunting," lead author Friederike Range told Discovery News. "Dogs are scavengers."
Range is co-director of the Wolf Science Center at the Messerli Research Institute, University of Vienna. For the study, she and colleagues Caroline Ritter and Zsófia Virányi raised a dog and a wolf pack under identical conditions at the center. The wolves originated in North America, but were born in captivity. The eight dogs were mutts that were born in animal shelters in Hungary.
The researchers documented how the animals interacted with their fellow pack mates. Dinnertime was especially dynamic and revealing. The wolf pack turned out to be more of a democracy, where anyone had a chance at monopolizing the food. High-ranking wolves, as well as low-ranking ones and those in between, could growl and do stare-downs to get their fair share of the meat.
In contrast, only the higher-ranking dogs in the dog pack showed such behavior since it wasn't tolerated among the lower-ranking dogs.
"This means that in the wolves, the higher-ranking partners were more tolerant of the lower-ranking ones," Range said. "In the dogs, the lower-ranking ones did not dare to challenge the higher-ranking partners."
Some of this has to do with basic structural differences between dog and wolf packs. Range explained that feral dog packs consist of multiple males and females that are not necessarily related. A wolf pack, on the other hand, usually has a male and female dominant couple that lives with their offspring from the past 2 to 3 years, so it's more of a family group.
The scientists noted that wolves only showed rare and weak aggression toward their fellow pack mates. Wolves therefore appear to be surprisingly tolerant -- a trait associated with kindness and cooperation -- with the important catch that such feelings are limited to their own pack mates.
Still they do show some mercy in antagonistic encounters with unrelated wolves. If one rolls over in a submissive position, with its stomach facing upward and vulnerable, the other wolf might not attack.
While most of us envision wolves stealthily chasing deer and other hoofed animals, studies have shown that wolves actually prefer more tranquil fishing to hunting.
Chris Darimont, a research scientist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and his team studied the feeding habits of wolves in a remote area of British Columbia. For four years, the researchers conducted chemical analysis of wolf droppings to determine what they were eating.
Whenever salmon were prevalent, the wolves shunned their venison diet in favor of seafood feasts. Darimont explained that "selecting benign prey such as salmon makes sense from a safety point of view." He added that "salmon also provides enhanced nutrition in terms of fat and energy."
Just because wolves are tolerant of pack mates and would rather be peacefully fishing does not mean that they should be anyone's pets.
"We (humans) did select dogs for skills that make living together with them a lot easier!" Range said.
Now the question is, what exactly were those skills if they weren't tolerance or reduced aggression? Range and her team hope to find out, as doing so could improve our understanding of dogs and how to better address their particular needs.