Thursday, October 25, 2018

How Wolves Communicate. Part 3: Sight and Touch

Wolves use their ears and eyes, their teeth and nose, their posture and fur and tail to communicate visually. A dominant wolf ready to attack, for example, will bare its teeth, raise its hackles, stiffen its legs, and move slowly. A submissive wolf, on the other hand, will hide its teeth, carry its body low, keep its fur sleek, and lower its ears and tail, write Fred Harrington and Cheryl Asa in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation.

Communicating visually is probably as important to wolves as communicating with sounds (Part 1 of this series) and scents (Part 2), but can be harder to master since wolves often use multiple cues at the same time. 

The tail is the wolf’s most dynamic visual aid, according to one researcher. A raised tail makes a wolf look bigger. A wagging tail conveys friendliness. A stiff tail moving slowly may signal an attack. The researcher illustrated eleven tail positions that convey a variety of moods including assertion, intimidation, threat, submission, uncertainty, and depression. 

To survive in a pack, a young wolf must learn to read a countless combination of visual signals. Reading or sending a signal correctly reduces conflict with family members and others. Harrington and Asa give two examples:
  • A wolf intrudes on the personal space of another wolf. The intruder realizes his mistake when the other wolf bares its teeth and growls.
  • During mating season when males are vying for honors, the visual cues between two opposing males may look like a dance accompanied by growls and whines, snarls and yelps.
Since visual cues are so critical, wolves must be able to see them at any time—even during low light when wolves are often hunting. To that end, they have what Harrington and Asa call “24-hour” eyes. Though wolves lose color vision and some acuity at night, they can still see the features of nearby family members, a plus when the pack works as a team to bring down a meal. Wolves probably have better vision than dogs, dogs losing out due to domestication.

Communicating with Touch

While visual communication has been well studied, tactile communication has been less studied, say Harrington and Asa. Touch is important to wolves from birth. Deaf and blind newborns huddle and nurse by using their senses of touch and smell. As they grow, wolves learn friendly and aggressive touches. While walking, for example, contented family members make brief and repeated muzzle-to-muzzle or muzzle-to-fur contact. When aggressive, a wolf may push against another’s flank or pin an opponent’s muzzle to the ground. 

Touch is helpful in appraising a rival’s strength or skill. Young wolves may play fight as a way of assessing family members while an older wolf may avoid allowing other wolves to physically engage him and uncover his fading strength.

Touch can reduce stress and strengthen bonds. Harrington and Asa mention studies of humans and their pet dogs which “…have shown that tactile contact reduces heart rate and blood pressure in both humans and dogs.” They speculate the same benefit may happen when wolves touch one another.

Rick's award-winning Deep into Yellowstone and best-selling In the Temple of Wolves are available signed or unsigned on Amazon.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Agingis available signed or on Amazon.

Photo of wolf staring via Pixabay, public domain

1 comment: