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Howling Signals Quality of Relationships in Wolves

Update Date: Aug 22, 2013 01:05 PM EDT

Wolves howl when a member of their pack leaves because they care- not because they are stressed.

Scientists say the latest findings provide important insight into the degree to which animal vocal production can be considered voluntary.

The study, conducted at Austria's Wolf Science Center, found that when a member of the wolf pack leaves the group, the howling by those left behind isn't a reflection of, but of the quality of their relationships.

"Our results suggest the social relationship can explain more of the variation we see in howling behavior than the emotional state of the wolf," Friederike Range, from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, said in a news release. "This suggests that wolves, to a certain extent, may be able to use their vocalizations in a flexible way."

Researchers say the findings show that animals have the ability to change their vocalizations based on their own understanding of the social context.

Researchers at the Wolf Science Center noticed that wolves at the center always howl when individual wolves are taken out for walks.

To understand why, researchers measured the wolves' stress hormone levels.  They also collected information on the wolves' dominance status in the pack and their preferred partners. When human handlers took individual wolves out for long walk, they recorded the reactions of each of their pack mates.

The study revealed that wolves howl more when a member of the pack they have a better relationship with leaves the group and when the member is of high social rank.  However, the amount of howling did not correspond to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"Our data suggest that howling is not a simple stress response to being separated from close associates but instead may be used more flexibly to maintain contact and perhaps to aid in reuniting with allies," Range said.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology

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