While camping in Yellowstone National Park, you fall asleep to a symphony of crickets and rustling leaves beneath a brilliant full moon. A little while later, a high-pitched moan snaps you out of your slumber. You hear the noise again, and it immediately registers -- a wolf's howl. "No need to worry," you think as you close your eyes, "that old canine is just yapping at the moon."
So where did this connection between wolves and the moon come from? Blame it on your ancestors' ancestors. Many ancient civilizations stretching back to the Neolithic Age continually paired wolves with the moon in images and literature, which eventually evolved into today's popular belief. Hecate, Greek goddess of the moon, kept the company of dogs. Same thing goes for Diana, Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt. Norse mythology tells of a pair of wolves that chase the moon and sun to summon night and day [source: Rosenberg]. The Native American Seneca tribes believe that a wolf sung the moon into existence [source: Henes].
Since wolves inhabit every continent except South America and Antarctica, their prevalence in human culture isn't surprising. As nocturnal animals, they have a natural association with darkness and the moon.
And just like humans whisper, shout, scream, murmur or chat to communicate, howling isn't the only way wolves vocally express themselves. Instead, they deliver short-range messages with three other types of vocalizations: barking, growling and whimpering.
The bark comes as no surprise since we're used to wolves' tamer descendents doing so. But as any dog owner can tell you, barks can have various meanings. For wolves, barks are either offensive or defensive. They may warn nearby pack members of an incoming predator. Or, they may call another wolf into a challenge. Lower-pitched growls signal dominance or an impending confrontation [source: Feldhamer et al]. For calmer occasions, a high-pitched whimper indicates submission. Wolves may whimper as a friendly greeting to each other, or parents and pups may speak gently to each other [source: Earth Expeditions].
But when they raise their muzzles toward the sky and release those wavering howls, is the message meant for the moon? Find out the answer on the next page.
Why Wolves Howl
Canine experts have found no connection between the phases of the moon and wolf howling [source: Busch]. Wolves pipe up more often during the night because they're nocturnal. But why do they point their faces toward the moon and stars when they howl? It's all about acoustics since projecting their calls upward allows the sound to carry farther.
Today, wolf howling is one of the most distinct and well-studied animal vocalizations. The ancestors of domesticated dogs, wolves howl as a form of long-distance communication, conveying a range of information. Because of the high pitch and the suspension of notes, the sounds of wolf howls can carry as far as 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) in the forest and even 10 miles (16 kilometers) across the treeless tundra [source: Musgrave].
Wolf howls serve as GPS systems, sing-alongs and fire alarms -- all rolled into one. In fact, the purpose of wolf howls isn't terribly different from the reasons humans raise their voices to the wind. In general, the primary reasons why wolves howl include:
- A rally cry for the pack to meet up
- A signal to let the pack know of a wolf's location
- A warning for outside wolves to stay out of a pack's territory
The frequency of howling increases during the evening and early dawn when wolves hunt [source: Lopez and Bauguess]. Howls punctuate the air more often during the wintertime breeding season, when wolves seek out mates [source: Lopez and Bauguess]. Since howls bear coding for a wolf's body size and health (with the larger animals exhibiting deeper tones), males can exercise their pipes to attract females [source: Feldhamer et al].
Although we think of wolves howling alone, they frequently do so as a group. These chorus howls involve members of a pack singing in unison at multiple pitches. Together, the chorus may include up to 12 related harmonies [source: Lopez and Bauguess]. Group howling can protect packs since the combination of harmonies tricks listeners into thinking there are more wolves present [source: Harrington]. Or sometimes, they'll howl just for the fun of it.
Alpha wolves, leaders of the pack, usually display a lower-pitched howl and will sound off more frequently than those with a more subservient social standing [source: Feldhamer et al]. Pups also practice howling as they mature, mimicking those of adult wolves [source: Harrington]. Lone wolves, however, may not howl as much to keep their whereabouts hidden from potential predators, since they don't have the added protection of a pack [source: Feldhamer et al].
As you can see, these primitive animals have an extensive vocabulary to express themselves. To learn more about their language, visit the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Busch, Robert A. "The Wolf Almanac: A Celebration of Wolves and Their World." Globe Pequot. 2007. (July 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=iUVJsGY9Q-8C
- Cashford, Jules. "The Moon: Myth and Image." Thunder's Mouth Press. 2003. (July 15, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=Kpfwhg1hE6QC
- Feldhamer, George A.; Thompson, Bruce Carlyle and Chapman, Joseph A. "Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation." JHU Press. 2003. (July 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=-xQalfqP7BcC
- Harrington, Fred H. "What's in a Howl?" PBS Nova. Updated November 2000. (July 14, 2008)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wolves/howl.html
- Henes, Donna. "The Moon Watcher's Companion." Marlowe & Company. 2004. (July 15, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=RlRaNvPjenEC
- "Howls and Growls: Vocal Communication in Wolves." Earth Expeditions. (July 14, 2008)http://www.units.muohio.edu/dragonfly/com/vocal.shtml
- Lopez, Barry Holstun and Bauguess, John. "Of Wolves and Men." Simon and Schuster. 2004. (July 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=-3FTLxW09K0C
- Musgrave, Ruth A. "Wolf Speak." National Geographic Kids. February 2007.
- Rosenberg, Donna. "World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics." McGraw-Hill Professional. 1994. (July 16, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=cOgcKVnLYfkC