The "woe is me" sound of a wolf howl is tied to loneliness and affection for others, a new Current Biology study suggests.
What's more, each howl appears to be uniquely matched to the quality of a specific wolf relationship.
This goes against prior speculation that howls are just a knee jerk reaction, with wolves acting out of instinct instead of anything particularly meaningful.
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"Our results suggest the social relationship can explain more of the variation we see in howling behavior than the emotional state of the wolf," Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, who worked on the study, said in a press release.
"This suggests that wolves, to a certain extent, may be able to use their vocalizations in a flexible way."
Range and colleagues' study looked at two packs of wolves living at Austria's Wolf Science Center. Human handlers there typically take individual wolves out for walks on a leash, one at a time. The handlers noticed that, without fail, the other wolves would howl when one of their pack left them.