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Decoding Wolf Dialects


A rescued timberline wolf howls at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images
A rescued timberline wolf howls at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images

If you're a pet owner, you've probably wondered at some time or another whether dogs in other parts of the world bark with an accent. Maybe French poodles, for example, yap with clipped vowel sounds like those of their French masters.

Well, there now appears to be some validity to the thought. A new study out of Cambridge University has found that wolves, dogs and other members of the canid family howl differently from species to species — not exactly with different accents, but with different dialects.

While this might make for interesting cocktail party conversation, just why do wolf howls matter? (The term "wolf" is used generically and includes dogs, dingoes and coyotes that were all part of the study.) There are several very good reasons, especially if you're interested in animal behavior, conservation or curious about how human language developed.

"There's always a tendency to assume that animal sounds are pretty arbitrary – just random sounds," says Arik Kershenbaum, the lead Cambridge researcher, in an email. "But as we develop more and more quantitative analytical techniques, we're finding out that this seems to be rarely the case."

In this study, scientists for the first time used computer algorithms to group 2,000 different howls into 21 howl types based on pitch and fluctuation. Previously, howl studies were more subjective because they had to rely on humans comparing soundwave patterns.

The study's use of algorithms is objective and revealed information never before detected. What the computer helped uncover is that howl types varied from dog to coyote to subspecies of wolf. For example, the timber wolf howl is low and flat, while the endangered red wolf howl features high, looping vocals.

"These sounds may be used to convey information," Kershenbaum says, "and decoding that is an important task for understanding animal behavior and for conservation tasks. Knowing how different wolf packs use different howl types is a first step to decoding that information."

(You can hear some wolf howls below, courtesy of Arik Kershenbaum)

This still begs the question, what makes wolf howls special, as opposed to, say, the meows of cats?

"Wolves hold a very special position in our investigation of our own evolution," Kershenbaum explains. "Wolves cooperate to solve complex problems such as hunting large prey, and they are highly social and intelligent. That makes them similar to us in many ways, and similar evolutionary processes may be occurring in wolves that occurred in ancient hominins [humans and their ancestors]."

The study could also help us understand why the red wolf, for example, is a disappearing breed. Conservationists know that one of the reasons red wolves are vanishing is because they mate with coyotes, thus diluting their breed. This study found that red wolves and coyotes have "significant overlap" in their howling vocabularies and behavior. Researchers surmise this may be one reason they mate with each other.

Scientists also see a potential for using recordings of howls to "mark territory," which may keep real wolves away from farms and livestock. Though they admit that first they have to gain an understanding of what wolves are saying when they howl.

While people may think of chimps, apes and other primates as the animals that are most similar to humans, Kershenbaum points out that wolves and humans share many similar characteristics as well, characteristics that may help shed light on our own evolution.

Like humans, wolves are "highly social, highly intelligent, cooperative in achieving common goals and highly vocal," he says, though their language hasn't evolved as much as humans.

"Humans appear to be the only species in evolutionary history to have a true language. This is remarkable," says Kershenbaum, "and unusual. Evolution occurs in small steps, so where are the intermediate forms? Where are the animals with proto-language? It's a big evolutionary mystery. However, by examining how communication is used and how it likely evolved in species that are ecologically similar to us even if taxonomically distant, we hope to uncover the kinds of processes that may have occurred in early human history leading to such a rapid explosion of linguistic ability."