Wolves Howl Because They Miss Friends Who Leave The Pack, Study Finds

By Josh Lieberman on August 23, 2013 12:33 PM EDT

wolf
Wolves howl more frequently when a close friend leaves the pack, a study published in Current Biology finds. (Photo: Flickr: tambako)

Wolves howl when they're separated from their closest friends, according to a new study published in Current Biology. As highly social animals, wolves will howl more frequently when a close friend has wandered away from the pack, the study found.

In the study, the researchers removed a wolf from a pack kept in an enclosure at the Wolf Science Center in Austria. Each wolf from the pack was then taken on a 45-minute walk around the woods. Researchers recorded the howling rate of the wolves who remained in the enclosure. The closer one wolf was to another wolf--as measured by how much time they spent playing with and grooming one another--the more the wolf howled for his removed friend. 

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"We didn't know there was some flexibility on how much they howl depending on their relationship," said study co-author Friederike Range, from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Austria. "The amount of howling is really defined by the quality of the relationship."

According to lead author Simon Townsend, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, the wolves howled more for higher-ranking individuals in the pack, but not in dereference to their power. The more frequent howls were due to the fact that high-ranking wolves play a big role in the social lives of the other wolves, hence their desire to howl often in order to reinitiate contact. 

In addition to measuring the howling rates of the wolves, researches analyzed the stress levels of the howling wolves. They did this to see whether the wolves were stressed by the absence of a close friend, and thus may have been howling out of worry or anxiety. In measuring levels of cortisol, a hormonal stress indicator, in the wolves' saliva, they found that cortisol increased uniformly when each wolf was removed from the enclosure. So while stress levels seemed to remain the same regardless of whether a wolf's friend or mere acquaintance was removed, the increase in howling when only a close friend was removed may indicate that that wolves feel upset when a close friend departs.  

"The wolves are choosing to howl because a preferred wolf has been removed and they appear to consciously choose to stay in touch with that wolf, " wolf-howl specialist Holly Root-Gutteridge, who wasn't involved in the study, told BBC News. "That's fascinating because it's really hard to separate social contact calls from the trigger causing them and also the hormone change the trigger causes." Root-Gutteridge added, "It means the wolves may be taking complex social interactions into consideration and then changing their own behaviour accordingly, not by instinct but by choice."

Root-Gutteridge was lead author on a study earlier this year which was able to identify individual wolves' calls with 100 percent accuracy, besting previous efforts which were only 76 percent effective. The researchers used a computer program which analyzed volume and pitch of wolves' calls, which are a unique calling card of each wolf.  

READ MORE:

Dolphin Social Memories: Dolphins Remember Friends' Unique Whistles After Decades Of Separation [STUDY]

Attractive Male Turkeys Don't Have Better Genes, They're Just Better At Expressing Themselves [STUDY]

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