The howl of a wolf can either move us to smile or terrify those who don’t know any better. Wolves howl to communicate on many different levels for various reasons just like humans talking, or in some cases, yelling. Wolf howls have become one of the most well-studied animal vocalizations. The more we understand about what makes wolves howl, the more we learn how to identify these vocalizations, the better we can help them. It has been said by many that the pack that howls together stays together. The beauty of the sing-song notes they send out into the world often makes us feel one particular way. We humans, either love it or hate it. There really isn’t any in between. So here’s a little explanation for those incredible sounds we hear from the beautiful animals we adore.
Wolves make multitudes of sounds besides howls – they bark, yelp, snarl, whine, whimper, woof, and moan. But it’s the howls that we recognize, and it’s the howls we have fallen in love with. The high pitch and suspension of notes are as eerie as they are beautiful. Howls vary with each pack member; the male wolves howls tend to be lower and deeper, which helps the ladies find their perfect mate. Male wolves will also lower their tone to add a more threatening message to other wolves. Howls also vary depending on the social stature in the pack and with regard to each member of the pack. So if one member of the pack takes off, certain pack mates will howl according to their relationship to that particular wolf. Wolves howl to those members that they spend the most time with. These howls keep them in touch as the lone wolf travels. In a forest, howls can be heard six miles away. In a treeless tundra, howls can be heard up to 10 miles away.
There are a variety of different howls for different reasons – warning for other wolf packs or interlopers to stay away, to keep in touch with other wolves, to notify their pack of danger, to have sing-alongs to strengthen the pack bonds, and especially to signal the start of a hunt or the success of a hunt. Wolf howls convey a lot of information with these vocalizations, particularly if they are in unfamiliar territory or situation, or when storms are going on. Every wolf’s howl is slightly different, and each pack’s howl is different than another pack’s. When the wolves howl together, they vary their sound so that it becomes difficult to tell exactly how many wolves are in the pack. This is done by modulating their howls with regard to pitch and tone. When wolves howl, they lift their heads which maximizes the acoustics of the call to project as far as possible. Each pack member has their own unique sound and their own unique way of communicating to the rest of the pack during solitary howling.
One of the lesser known facts is that when the pups are first born, they are completely deaf. Within a couple of weeks, they begin to hear and start vocalizing themselves to the pack. Pups will howl any time they hear a howl, particularly if their pack is coming back from a successful hunt so that they can get the food. Typically, wolves don’t howl as often around the pups so that the den cannot be found. Another lesser known fact is that wolves do not actually howl at the moon. As wolves are nocturnal and are most active at dusk and dawn, when the moon would be out, this is why many stories seem to involve wolves howling at the moon.
Something very cool is that scientists in England have been able to identify specific wolves using their howl through a vocal identification system that measures volume and pitch. This computer program can identify individuals with 100% accuracy, and for those that howl together, the accuracy only goes down to 97%. They have an archive of wolf howls to learn from and use. When put to the test, they can identify if one wolf howled one night on its own and then howled in a group the following night. This is a significant breakthrough.