Wolves howl to communicate over long distances.

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Why Wolves Howl

Forget the malarkey about wolves howling at the moon. These animals care as much about the Earth's nightlight as metalheads think about "High School Musical."

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.

Wolves often howl together as a chorus.

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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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