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If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media. Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service. Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives. Gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in , resulting in a trophic cascade through the entire ecosystem. After the wolves were driven extinct in the region nearly years ago, scientists began to fully understand their role in the food web as a keystone species.
Find an educator guide for exploring a keystone species with students in Grades K Skip to content. Fast Facts Vocabulary. Wolves are not wild dogs!
Do wolves really howl at the moon?
By Earthjustice November 3, Listen to a pack of wolves howling to each other. Three wolves photographed mid-howl. Updates from. Find more news. November 15, Soon the whole pack was down in the willows and into a draw that led them out of sight. Why did he howl? The off-the-cuff explanation, overheard from a woman standing nearby, was that he was telling his fellow pack mates to get off their butts and follow. She may have been right. This situation was one where a clear expression of intent seems to have been involved, at least subjectively.
We have seen it infrequently both before and since.
Sometimes the pack moves, but not always. Most often a move is initiated in silence. Over the span of a few minutes, one wolf after another gets up and heads out the same way. Or, one wolf howls, the whole pack joins in, and then they move off more or less together. Regardless, as a prelude to a move, howling is used inconsistently. That inconsistency is shared in most of the 22 social or environmental situations we identified in Yellowstone. And that inconsistency is based on considerable underlying motivational complexity, not only in wolf howls, but in all animal vocal communication.
Triggers Competing triggers that may cause wolves to howl include some basic, but surprisingly slippery concepts.
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Intent itself, if based on memory and learning, can trigger vocalization, as anyone knows whose dog barks to be let in. Or, did he think it out, on-the-spot reasoning, which is much more problematical? Intent can be classified by levels of complexity Dennett and involve recursion or sequential reasoning such as we humans use all the time Chomsky , Corballis These higher levels of intent require a well-developed prefrontal cortex that wolves simply do not have. A preponderance of biologists would assert that non-human animals cannot engage in complex reasoning, especially reasoning that involves conceptualizing a number of steps Hauser et al.
Instead, the primary basis of vertebrate vocal communication is believed to be emotion Suddendorf , a conclusion reached by Charles Darwin in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals which is still widely quoted. We share many midbrain structures for emotions with other vertebrate species. Possibly those innate feelings caused adaptive neurohormonal adjustments in him; excitation of the sympathetic nervous system resulted in more cortisol or other biochemicals in the blood, and the result was that he howled.
The biochemistry of emotions is a complex and active research area. If the outcome of such howls often enough was that the pack joined in on what turned out to be successful hunts, then natural selection would favour howling in that particular context without having any reasoned-out intent.
Why Do Wolves Howl? And Other Top Wolf Questions Answered
That is, did his howls contain any specific information? Similarly, Palacios et. We also learned that a higher level of excitement is reflected in higher pitched vocalizations Theberge and Falls , a trait in common with most mammals Morton Perhaps that was enough. His pack mates could recognize the situation and read into it that he wanted them to follow.
But was other information coded in his howls? The vast majority of biologists define language as requiring sophisticated syntax, that is, grammar and sentence structure to convey meaning; and they attribute that ability solely to humans Corballis , Pinter , Chomsky , Kruglinski Neurobiology backs this up.
Why Wolves Howl
Such signalling is well-known for species of primates Cheney and Seyfarth and rodents Slobodchikoff , where different calls refer to different predators and elicit different avoidance responses. These vocalizations represent situations under intense selection pressure. We do not know yet if wolves exhibit referential howling.
To find out, we have made hundreds of digital recordings for computer-based sonographic analysis. Whether language or protolanguage, or emotion or reason-driven, it is clear that wolf howling touches on deep concepts. For centuries these concepts have occupied the thoughts and writings of psychologists, physiologists, neurobiologists, ethologists, and ecologists—included are intelligence, reason, cooperation, language, cognition, and consciousness. We ultimately hope our research may help shed light on these difficult topics.
But the place to start is with descriptions of when wolves howl.
Why do wolves howl? Wolves do not howl at the moon.
The why, the really tough part, comes later. Yellowstone Yellowstone is an ideal place to study wolf howling with known and radio-collared animals, and open habitats where animal behavior may be observed. So in we turned to Yellowstone. Our starting place, besides our own studies, were statements reported about howling playing a role in territoriality during the breeding season, but not nailed down with quantification Peters and Mech , Harrington and Mech , Harrington and Asa Disconcertingly, we soon learned it takes a considerable effort to amass large enough sample sizes to draw statistically valid conclusions.
The main reason is the inconsistency mentioned earlier. Some field trips yielded few howls where context could be identified. Howling is probably secondary to scent Harrington and Asa , despite the richness of both motivational triggers for wolf howling and the richness of social and environmental situations that wolves get into. The inconsistency springs from another source and has yielded some interesting conclusions.
The other source is a dramatic seasonal variability. Howling is four times more common in February than in May, the extremes of a smooth curve of change, except for a sudden drop at the end of February. This pattern mirrors the annual pattern of serum levels of testosterone and estradiol in wolf blood. This finding indicates the reproductive state underlies wolf howling, not only during the breeding season but all year. The same pattern is found in other social carnivores that are monestrous have only one confined and regular breeding season per year , such as coyotes and dingoes.
No such seasonal pattern of vocalizations exists in polyestrous species e.
Even more noteworthy are the 1, howling responses by pack mates and foreign wolves. They, too, were seasonal.