- Wolves howling at the moon is just Hollywood fantasy and folklore.
- Howling is a vocalization and a way wolves communicate to other members of their pack.
- Scientists have discovered that wolves have different tones and pitches that mean different things.
Almost all wild dogs, wolves, and even domestic dogs howl in one way or another, and it’s common knowledge that wolves howl at the moon.
Right? It’s been portrayed in folklore and entertainment for as long as stories have existed, but do wolves actually howl at the moon?
In short, no. It’s nothing more than literary fantasy or a myth that has evolved over time.
So, where did the legend come from, and why do most canids howl?
It’s All About Communication
At face value, howling is a vocalization, and all vertebrate vocalizations are for communication. Wolves can use howls to communicate to their pack or competing packs about a wide variety of topics none of which are related to the current lunar phase.
Scientists have known for some time that wolves will speak to one another with howls, and they have even been able to track their ability to detect pitch and other variations in specific types of howls.
On open terrain, a wolf’s howl can be heard up to ten miles away, and even in thick forest, a howl is audible at ranges of up to six miles. A more excited wolf will have a higher pitch to their howl than one who is in a calmer emotional state. A wolf will also communicate using yips, barks, growls, and snarls just like other similar species.
More recent studies have shown that wolves will use howling to communicate more often with other pack members that they have a close relationship. This means that affection can play a strong role in the decision to howl as well. Scientists studied this by measuring the level of cortisol in the saliva of wolves after they howled.
Since cortisol is a hormone indicative of stress, the lack of its presence in their saliva post howl leads one to the assumption that the reason for the howling is born of a happier emotion instead of anxiety-based.
Many of us think of communication as only talking or writing to one another, however, the way humans share information is very different than how canines share information. Wolves will often use body language as a way to communicate or to convey dominance within a pack.
For example, the mother and father of other pack members are known as the dominant pair and are usually the only members of the pack that will produce pups. Thus, they are often referred to as the “breeding pair”.
So When Do Wolves Howl?
Since most species like the gray wolf (Canis lupus) are nocturnal, it is not uncommon to hear howling at night. Do gray wolves howl at the moon? It is entirely unrelated to the presence of the moon, and it is simply due to fact that the moon is out at the same time that the wolves are the most active. Howls can be heard during the day, in times of the new moon, and even when the moon is obscured by thick cloud cover.
There are many reasons why these mammals howl, and wolves of all levels within the pack will howl. Sometimes it is to signal the start of a hunt, the presence of prey, a desire to move out, or even to signal their location after having been separated for some reason. Packs will even howl to warn rival packs of the location of their territory.
Since it is an emotionally driven act, it isn’t uncommon for wolves to howl just because they hear the howls of others much like your dog will copy another neighborhood canine howling. Howling has been shown to strengthen the bonds between pack members when done as a group.
Wolf packs will harmonize when howling together as opposed to trying to match the tone of the initiating member. This has the added effect of making the pack appear to be larger than it is to any potential rival pack or nearby predators.
Misconceptions About Wolf Howls
We discussed the biggest misconception already in that no wolf howls at the moon, but where did that story come from? It may have been passed down through oral storytelling from much earlier time periods.
In those times, wolves would be much more active during a full moon than any other lunar phase due to the increased light, and it could simply be that humans naturally heard more howling during that time because they were also out and about as opposed to sleeping.
It may also have to do with the sight of a wolf’s head upturned towards the moon on a higher elevation. This is more to do with the most efficient means of howling at a greater volume than any celestial body.
An open throat turned up towards the sky allows the howler to generate the greatest sound, and the seeking of a higher elevation allows the noise to carry for the greatest distance by lessening the number of obstructions the sound must pass through.
Another common misconception is that wolves and dogs howl because they are lonely. While your domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) may howl when left home alone, it is more likely that they are trying to locate you, the missing member of their pack, or as an outlet for the emotional anxiety, they are experiencing than expressing any sense of loneliness.
Furthermore, howling for wild species like the wolf is inherently more dangerous to a lone creature with no pack. Howls can be used to locate the howler, and if said howler lacks a pack for protection, drawing others to his or her location can be a deadly error.
It is also frequently thought that wolves will howl when they are experiencing pain, but that is yet another incorrectly held assumption. If a wolf is trying to vocalize anything due to physical pain, it will emit a high-pitched yipping which sounds nothing like a true full-throated howl.
The origin of this specific myth is rather unclear, and it may be due to some artistic license taken by some given the mournful sound of a single howl.
While it may seem more ominous to think of wolves as creatures that howl at the moon, these masters of communication are just trying to coordinate with their family, spread the word about their position, and maybe grab a meal all while warning others to stay away from their habitat.
These nocturnal hunters have no connection to any phases of the moon anymore so than you or I do.
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