What are you saying, Mr Wolf?

Computer analysis of the howls of wolves and other canids could give scientists new insights into what they are saying and help with some thorny conservation issues.

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Wolf
Like dolphins and humans, wolves are social animals – and howling is critical to the way they live. © Becky Barrett

 

Wolves and other members of the dog family howl in different dialects, researchers have discovered.

The scientists from Cambridge University used computer algorithms to analyse the howls of wolves, coyotes, red wolves, domestic dogs, dingos and even the New Guinea singing dog.

In total, they identified 21 different types of howl from more than 2,000 recordings.

The cry of the timber wolf – what grey wolves are called in most of North America – is described as “heavy with low, flat howls”.

Eastern timber wolf

 

It’s quite distinct from the “looping, modulated, whining vocal” which is used by the Critically Endangered and smaller red wolf.


Red wolf

 

“Larger canid species tend to have a howl with a constant frequency,” said lead researcher Dr Arik Kershenbaum. “Smaller species modulate more, with more warbles and yelps, and that’s to hide how many of them there are. You can have two coyotes howling, and it sounds like 10.”

Indeed, the research revealed a significant overlap between the howls of coyotes and red wolves.


Coyote

 

“The survival of red wolves in the wild is threatened by interbreeding with coyotes, and we found that the howling behaviour of the two species is very similar,” said Kershenbaum. “That may be one reason why they are so likely to mate with each other.

“Perhaps we can take advantage of the subtle differences in howling we have now discovered to keep the populations apart,” he added.

Kershenbaum’s team is now working on a project in Yellowstone National Park, in the US state of Wyoming, using multiple recording devices to pick up the howls of its resident wolves.

“We are using triangulation to find the source of the howls, and we want to find which sorts of howl are made by wolves together in a pack and those which are on their own,” Kershenbaum said. “We hope to be able to work out whether the howl is intended to bring the pack together or deter other wolves.”

Conservationists could use this information to manipulate wolf packs – to keep them away from certain areas, for example.

Understanding canid howls better could have other applications, too – like humans and dolphins, they are a social species, and understanding what led to the development of their ‘language’ could help us better understand our own linguistic abilities.

“Wolves and dolphins have remarkably similar vocal characteristics,” said Kershenbaum. “If you slow a dolphin whistle down about 30 times, it sounds just like a wolf howl.”


Dolphin

 

Find out more about wolves from the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe

 

 

 

 

 

 

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