Monday, September 17, 2018

How Wolves Communicate. Part 1: Howling

Wolves, like people, communicate in many ways. They use their voice and face, their posture and fur, even their tail. They also use their senses of smell and sight, touch and taste. Skilled communicators, wolves choose what they need to get their message across: during the day, for example, they may communicate with posture, but at night howling or other vocal signals may work better.

Howling, the most well-known type of wolf communication, is a known attention grabber. According to Fred Harrington and Cheryl Asa in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, howling can “instantly reach an audience from near to far at any time day or night…” But much of the vocal communication between wolves is quieter, like the subtle sounds made by pups in a dark den.

Pups are deaf at birth, start to hear by Day 14, and by Day 20 reach their adult hearing level. During those first two weeks, even though the pups can’t hear, their mother can hear them as they moan, whine, squeal, and scream. These sounds decrease as pups get older. By three to four weeks of age—when emerging from the den with adult level hearing—pups can make all the sounds of an adult and howl with the pack. But another six months must pass before a pup grows into its adult voice.

Adult wolf sounds, according to one researcher, can be divided into two categories: harmonic and noisy. Harmonic sounds such as whimpers, whines, and yelps are used when acting friendly and submissive. Noisy sounds such as growls, snarls, woofs, and barks are made when acting aggressive or dominant. Other researchers found that when wolves are close together, howling sounds discordant, but when separated by at least ten yards, howling sounds harmonious.

Howling is long-distance communication. A wolf can hear another wolf’s howl more than six miles away in a forest and almost ten miles away in an open area. But howling is not a long-lasting communication like scent marking. Harrington and Asa write that an average howl from a single wolf lasts only three to seven seconds. A chorus by a pack lasts only 30 to 120 seconds, and perhaps longer during breeding season.

Short or long, howling helps wolves identify and locate other wolves. A chorus reunites a pack. A lone wolf howls for a mate. Unfamiliar howls reveal strangers. Though many people believe that wolves howling together must be a bonding experience, Harrington and Asa say that there is no empirical evidence to support this. They add that you can’t determine the size of a pack from its chorus howl, and “In times of uncertainty, wolves may use a ‘poker’ howl that limits the amount of information that might be available to unintended ears.”

Howling even varies with the seasons. Doug Smith, head of Yellowstone’s Wolf Project, told a reporter that during denning season, wolves stop howling to their neighbors and howl only to pack mates. But as summer progresses, wolves howl more and more to neighbors and enemies. This territorial howling peaks in February during the breeding season.

In a future post, I’ll describe ways wolves communicate using smell, sight, and touch.

To listen to a variety of howls on the Living withWolves website: 

photo of howling wolf via Pixaba

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