Why Do Wolves Howl?

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Why Do Wolves Howl?
Why Do Wolves Howl?

When next month’s full moon unveils its luminescent splendor, and you feel the call of the wild to start howling, the ancient stirrings have more to do with one’s position in time and space than yelping out show tunes on the mountain top. While some humans might feel a strange compulsion to howl at the moon, it is the alluring wolf with whom we most connect howling.

A howl is distinctive. A howl can only be a howl. It is not a bark. Neither is it a yap, growl nor snarl. A howl is definitely not a woof or a whine or a whimper.

A howl is all about individual survival. The melodic and sonorous sounds that haunt, intimidate, even mesmerize the night ensure wolves stay together. As pack animals, wolves work together to hunt and kill their food. But, because their hunting takes them over wide ranges searching out prey, individual wolves can become separated. Howling reunites lost wolves with their pack.

The howl – unlike all of the other calls a wolf makes – travels the greatest distance. It has a lower pitch and a longer duration, making the mighty howl the fourth Tenor. Its transmission penetrates forests and resonates across tundras, two typical wolf habitats. And, each wolf howls differently. Wolves recognize each other by their unique voices, with a “fundamental” (its lowest frequency) as well as differing pitches and harmonics.

But the call of the wild can also be a dangerous way to get outed. As much as a howl can save a lost wolf by reuniting it with its pack, it can also let wolves from neighbouring badass packs know its location and kill it. So much for the romance of being a lone wolf.

Wolves learn to howl smart. If lost, a wolf will find a seasonal rendezvous site and howl for hours at a time until pack pals return his or her call, at which point the path home is cleared with an oral GPS across the night sky.

Howling is also all about group survival. A pack of wolves will howl in an impressive chorus to maintain appropriate spacing with other packs. In one resonate moment, all wolves know where each other are, whether or not there is a response from a listening pack. The first to howl never knows if another pack is planning a sneak attack in the middle of the night or if it is going to respond with some nocturnal trash talk or leave well enough alone so all can have a good night’s sleep after a hard day stalking deer.

A phenomenon called the Beau Geste Effect makes it seem like there are many more howlers than there actually are, thereby intimidating potential enemies. It happens because when a wolf howls in a chorus, it does so using wavering (or modulated) howls that are rapid and change in pitch so it is impossible to identify one wolf from another, let alone how many are in the choir. Howl sounds are further deflected and scattered off of trees, rocks, valleys, and ridges.

So, do wolves really howl at the moon? Perhaps only in westerns and scary movies. Regardless, when a pack howls, it’s hard to deny the primal urge to join in.

(PBSLiving With Wolves (image)