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Wolves Capable of Learning from Other Species

Update Date: Dec 03, 2013 04:31 PM EST

New research suggests that the domestication of dogs might have built on a pre-existing ability of wolves to learn from humans.

Scientists discovered that wolves can learn where food is hidden by observing humans and pack members. Wolves can also recognize when people pretend to hide food.

Lead researchers Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna said the findings suggest that the ability to learn from other species was already present in wolves, the ancestors of dogs.

Previous research suggests that humans domesticated dogs about 18 thousand years ago, possibly from a European population of grey wolves that is now extinct. However, it was unclear how much the ability of dogs to communicate with people derives from pre-existing social skills of their wolf ancestors.

The latest study involved 11 North American grey wolves and 14 mutts. All animals were between five to seven months old, and were born in captivity, bottle-fed and hand-raised in packs at the Wolf Science Center of Game Park Ernstbrunn, Austria.

Researchers wanted to see if wolves and dogs can observe a familiar "demonstrator" - a human or a specially trained dog - to find out where to look for food within a meadow.

Researchers found that the wolves and dogs were two to four times more likely to find food after watching a human or dog demonstrator hide it. Researchers said the finding suggests that the animals had gained knowledge from demonstration instead of only relying on their sense of smell.

What's more, the wolves and dogs rarely looked for food where the human demonstrator had only pretended to hide it, indicating that the animals had observed very carefully.

The study revealed that wolves were less likely to follow dog demonstrators. Researchers explain that this doesn't mean that wolves were not paying attention to dog demonstrators. Instead, the wolves may have been keen enough to notice that the demonstrator dogs did not find the food reward particularly tasty themselves, and so simply did not trouble themselves by looking for it.

The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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