According to a study entitled “Wolf howling is mediated by relationship quality rather than underlying emotional stress,” which appears in the August 22 edition of the journal Current Biology, the meaning of wolf howling is not that it is a stress response. Rather, wolf howling is an indicator of the quality of relationships amongst the pack – the sound of which is connected to the level of affection for others, and to loneliness. The study focused on nine wolves from two packs at Austria’s Wolf Science Center, and the findings highlight the degree to which animal vocal production can be considered controlled.
According to Friederike Range, a researcher at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, “Our results suggest the social relationship can explain more of the variation we see in howling behavior than the emotional state of the wolf. This suggests that wolves, to a certain extent, may be able to use their vocalizations in a flexible way.”
Enduring questions regarding why animals vocalize the way that they do have puzzled scientists for generations, and the study aimed to understand whether or not animal vocalizations are uncontrollable emotional responses, and whether or not animals can modulate those vocalizations based on what we humans call the “social context.”
At Austria’s Wolf Science Center, handlers typically take out one wolf at a time for walks on a leash, and when the wolf leaves, the pack mates left in the enclosure always howl. In order to gain a better understanding of this behavior, Range and her research team drew blood from the wolves and measured their cortisol – a stress hormone – levels. In addition, the researchers assigned each wolf their place in the social hierarchy, as well as the preferred partners. When they took the individual wolves out on walks, the reactions of the pack mates were recorded.
Paralleling typical human emotions, the researchers observed that wolves howl more when they see a wolf with which they have a better relationship leave, and when a higher-ranking wolf leaves. Incredibly, the degree of howling did not correspond to higher levels of cortisol in the blood work.
According to Range, “Our data suggest that howling is not a simple stress response to being separated from close associates but instead may be used more flexibly to maintain contact and perhaps to aid in reuniting with allies.”
Keep this in mind when you are out in a forest known to be inhabited by wolves and hear their distinctive howls: they are probably lonely, and may not be signaling that they found their next meal.