Magazine article National Parks

What's in a Howl?

Magazine article National Parks

What's in a Howl?

Article excerpt

THE HOWL OF A WOLF SPARKED DREAD in medieval Europeans and American settlers, and it still inspires fear in ranchers worried about their livestock. For biologists, the sound signals a major conservation victory - the return of a North American apex predator and its restorative impact on the food chain and landscape. But what about the intended recipients of the howl? What information do wolves receive through those long-range vocalizations? In short, what's the meaning of a howl?

Despite our centuries-old fascination, we have few answers. Observing wolves in natural settings is extremely difficult, and experiments on captive wolves have only limited value because those animals don't display the same social behaviors as their wild brethren. But scientists think they might be on their way to a breakthrough. After analyzing thousands of recordings of wolves, coyotes and other canids, they've identified distinct types of howls and created howl profiles for each species and subspecies. Now they are recording and observing the wolves of Yellowstone National Park and hope to match the different howl types with the activities of the animals to figure out what they are saying.

"You don't want to overstate your claim," said Sara Waller, a Montana State University philosophy professor coordinating the Yellowstone study, "but it would be very exciting if one day we could all take Wolf 101 and talk to the animals like Dr. Dolittle."

Wolves make other sounds - they bark, growl and yip - but howls are the only ones that travel long distances. They are meant to be heard up to 6 miles away in forested land so they have to convey information without relying on body language. The two primary functions of howls are to indicate the boundaries of the wolves' territory to rivals and to keep track of family members, said Doug Smith, leader of the Wolf Restoration Project in Yellowstone. "So one howl is 'stay out,' and the other howl is 'where are you?'" he said.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests wolves use howls to convey emotions. The late wolf biologist Gordon Haber observed wolves howling in "obvious pain and distress" when they were caught in a trap or a snare. Smith said that he's also seen wolves that have lost a mate howl "for a lack of a better way to put it, mournfully."

Smith also said howling varies according to seasons. Its frequency goes down in the spring and early summer because wolves don't want other packs to identify the location of their den and potentially kill their pups, he said. And it gradually increases again toward late summer as pups grow less vulnerable.

Fred Harrington, a wolf howl expert at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada, said howls can be aggressive or lonesome and can also vary depending on which other pack members are around. Harrington said that pups howl differently depending on whether they are with adults or by themselves, for instance. What's more, the same howl can be interpreted differently. During his research in northern Minnesota, Harrington howled at wolves to trigger responses, which is a standard practice in wolf research (he said a fellow researcher who lacked confidence in his howling ability used a siren with similar results). Although wolves usually retreated, some would instead move closer, apparently intrigued. …

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