What’s in a Howl?

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by Fred H. Harrington
Professor of Ethology
Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia

Diagram of sound wave next to photo of wolf howling Ask anyone about wolf vocalizations and the howl invariably springs to mind. Even though wolves bark, woof, whine, whimper, yelp, growl, snarl and moan a lot more often than they howl, it is howling that defines the wolf, and fascinates us. So why do wolves howl?

The center of a wolf’s universe is its pack, and howling is the glue that keeps the pack together. Some have speculated that howling strengthens the social bonds between packmates; the pack that howls together, stays together. That may be so, but chorus howls can also end with nasty quarrels between packmates. Some members, usually the lowest-ranking, may actually be “punished” for joining in the chorus. Whether howling together actually strengthens social bonds, or just reaffirms them, is unknown.

We do know, however, that howling keeps packmates together, physically. Because wolves range over vast areas to find food, they are often separated from one another. Of all their calls, howling is the only one that works over great distances. Its low pitch and long duration are well suited for transmission in forest and across tundra, and unique features of each individual’s howl allow wolves to identify each other. Howling is a long distance contact and reunion call; separate a wolf from its pack, and very soon it will begin howling, and howling, and howling…

Frame grab of sonagram For the following examples of howling, you can “read” the sound spectrograph as you listen to the howls. For each spectrograph, the pitch of the sound is displayed on the vertical axis, so howls low in pitch are nearer the bottom, and howls high in pitch will be found toward the top. Time is represented along the horizontal axis, going from left to right, just as you are now reading this text. A howl that is unmodulated in pitch would appear as a straight line across the screen. Most howls show some degree of modulation, so they look like rolling hills or steep ridges leading to or falling away from plateaus. In addition to its so-called fundamental, or lowest frequency, most howls have harmonics, which appear as higher and higher bands of sound that run parallel to the fundamental on the sonagram.

You’ll need one of the free software plugins—RealPlayer or QuickTime to be able to view the sonagram clips of wolf howls below. If you already have the software, choose an appropriate connection speed (RealVideo) or the file size (QuickTime, AVI) to view a clip.

A “Lonesome” Howl

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Solo wolf, lonesome howl The series of adult howls heard here can be classified as “lonesome” or “lone” howls. Variation in their structure likely indicates who is howling, and the frequency modulations, particularly the sudden changes in pitch, make the howls much easier to locate.

When a wolf howls, not only can its packmates hear it, but so can any other wolf within range. These other wolves may be members of hostile adjacent packs that are competitors for territory and prey. Howl too close to these strangers, and they may seek you out, chase you, and kill you. In northern Minnesota, where wolves are protected from humans, the primary cause of death for adult wolves is being killed by wolves from other packs. So howling has its costs (running into the opposition) as well as its benefits (getting back with the pack). Consequently, wolves are careful about where and when they howl, and to whom they howl.

For example, a wolf that is separated from its pack may return to an abandoned summer rendezvous site and howl for hours, even in response to a stranger nearby. It was accustomed to howling at that site and probably feels relatively confident and secure there. But that same wolf, away from the old home site, will be much more reserved, and if a stranger howls nearby, it may silently and quickly retreat. Younger wolves, however, act differently.

Pups, especially those under four months of age, love to howl and will usually reply to any howling they hear, even that of total strangers. This is understandable, since pups haven’t yet learned how to identify their older packmates.

A Pup Howl

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The above example of pup howling comes from a three-month-old pup that has just heard an adult howling near the den site. Notice how its howls are shorter in duration and higher in pitch, a consequence of its small overall size and lung capacity. The howls do have the same modulated structure as the adult lonesome howl, and serve the same role as contact calls.

Pup, howling Indiscriminate howling is usually not a dangerous proposition for young pups, since they tend to be stuck at a rendezvous site that is relatively far from the neighbors, who likely have pups of their own to raise. More importantly, replying to an adult that howls often leads to a meal, since packmates returning with food frequently howl as they near the home site. But as summer gives way to fall, the benefits of indiscriminate howling decrease.

Once pups start to travel with the pack, they begin to enter less secure surroundings. Their neighbors are also traveling more. Distant howls may belong to strangers, so the risks of howling increase. Besides, by now they have had ample time to learn the voices of their own packmates and are able discriminate friend from foe. By six months of age, pups have become as selective as adult wolves about where, when and to whom they howl.

There is one member of the pack who will tend to howl more boldly: the alpha male. The alpha male is the dominant male of the pack, and father of the pups. He is most likely to howl to, and even approach, a stranger—often with confrontation on his mind. One sign of this aggressiveness can be heard in his voice; his howls become lower-pitched and coarser in tone as he approaches a stranger. Lowering the pitch of a vocalization is a nearly universal sign of increasing aggressiveness in mammals, and in wolves it can sound quite impressive.

A Confrontational Howl

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Wolf, howling confrontational howl In the above example, an alpha male howls after approaching a stranger who had howled close to the rendezvous site. The long, low-pitched and coarse howls seem designed to scare off the intruder without the need for a face-to-face confrontation.

This behavior points to the second main purpose of howling: helping to maintain spacing between rival packs. When one pack howls, others nearby may reply. Very quickly, all the wolves know each other’s location. By advertising their presence, packs can keep their neighbors at bay and avoid accidentally running into them.

But the use of howling in spacing is fraught with difficulties. If one pack howls, all its neighbors (within range, of course) now know its location. What if they choose to keep quiet, sneak up, and attack the howlers? Deliberate attacks by one pack on another have been seen, so there are costs to advertising your location. These risks have to be balanced with benefits. An example of this trade-off is sometimes seen during winter, when packs are traveling nomadically within (or even outside) their territories. A pack sitting on a fresh prey kill is very likely to stake its claim and howl, particularly if a stranger howls nearby. As time passes and the kill is consumed, the wolves become less invested in the site and are less likely to reply. Eventually, they may respond to a stranger’s howling by silently moving away.

When two packs do meet, their relative size usually decides the outcome. Thus small packs are often quite reluctant to howl and draw attention to themselves, whereas large packs howl readily. But packs can fib to one another about their size.

When animals compete, they often engage in behaviors designed to exaggerate their size. Wolves stand tall, raise their hackles, ears and tails, and produce low, menacing howls, all to convince their opponent that a retreat from this “big, bad wolf” is the best option. Thus most confrontations involve a lot of bluff and very little bloodshed. Similarly, packs that are able to exaggerate their numbers are more likely to keep their neighbors at bay. The structure of a pack or chorus howl is well suited to this kind of deception.

A Chorus Howl

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This is a chorus of wolves, made up of at least two adults and two yearlings. Listen to the way this chorus changes. It begins with a single howl, which is relatively simple in structure. After a second or two, a second wolf joins, followed by one or two more before the rest of the pack follows virtually en masse. This accelerating start makes it possible to pick out the first three or four individuals but, after that, too many begin howling at once to count them. Besides, usually only three have howled before the first wolf is ready to howl again, so is the fourth wolf howl in the chorus wolf number four howling for the first time, or wolf number one howling for the second time? Once the whole pack is howling, the sound becomes more and more modulated, changing pitch rapidly in what seems to be chaotic disorder. This continues until the chorus winds down a minute or so later.

Pack of wolves howling Rather than using howls with a single pure tone, wolves howling in a chorus use wavering or modulated howls. The rapid changes in pitch make it difficult to follow one individual’s howls if several others are howling simultaneously. In addition, as the sound travels through the environment, trees, ridges, rock cliffs and valleys reflect and scatter it. As a result, competing packs hear a very complex mix of both direct sound and echoes. If the howls are modulated rapidly enough, two wolves may sound like four or more. Indeed, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant reported hearing what he took to be a pack of “not more than 20 wolves” while traveling. A short time later he reached the pair of wolves that had been making all the noise! This phenomenon, called the Beau Geste Effect, may introduce enough uncertainty to make size estimates not only unreliable, but potentially lethal, if a pack underestimates the size of its rival and approaches.

So wolves howl to find their companions and keep their neighbors at bay. Popular imagination has long held that they also howl at the moon, but there is no evidence that this is so. Wolves may be more active on moonlit nights, when they can see better, or we may hear them more often on such nights, because we feel more comfortable tramping about in the light of a full moon, but a wolf howling at the moon would be wasting its breath.

Photos: (1) © J. McDonald/Visuals Unlimited; (2) © R. Lindholm/Visuals Unlimited; (3) © R. Lindholm/Visuals Unlimited; (4) Animals Animals/© Peter Weimann.


Wolf Maze

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Help the wolf pups get back to their mother! (Don’t worry — she will come and find them herself if they stay away too long. 🙂 http://www.wolfparkkids.org/

Right click and print.

Make an Origami Wolf

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Here is an easy way to make a little wolf just by folding paper! If you use paper of different sizes you can make adult wolves, puppies and yearlings. You could even fold your own wolf pack!



Unscramble Wolf Fun

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Unscramble these wolf-related words:


  • wovlse

  • akpc

  • omno

  • wolh

  • tunh

  • nde

  • ppu

  • ahalp

  • grolw

  • rfu

  • pwas

  • torrpaed

  • reyp

  • onibs

  • xseof

  • cooety



    Wolf Word Find

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                           Print out this Word Find for a fun wolf activity!
                                     M O O N F F H L I T T E R Y E
                                     C H S L A Q O U A Y M W Q T P
                                     R N K N M H T R N H K T O I A
                                     T O G W I F L I E T P Y Q K C
                                     X I T P L N P C S S O L N B K
                                     S S U A Y U E J E C T P A O S
                                     Q V I Z D L Y D V W B U H F W
                                     P P W D B E S I L P U P P I T
                                     I L B D C C R W O X M S L Q P
                                     Y P F S L V P P W I S D L L Y
                                     E M E W G X R W P N X E E X B
                                     R T O W P E Q F Q C G W P I T
                                     P H W L Y W G E E Z Q Z S A B
                                     A M T D I N A C G P R O W C O
                                     K X O F A U E N B U N Z Y O O



    Wolf Crossword Puzzle

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                     Print out this Crossword Puzzle for a fun wolf activity!

    1 2
    4 5
    6 7 8
    9 10
    12 13
    17 18
    3. The most famous sound wolves make.
    4. An animal which eats other animals to survive.
    7. Wolves have 42 strong, white _____.
    9. A domesticated wolf (you might have one)!
    10. A place where mother wolves raise their babies.
    12. Wolves see with these.
    13. A baby wolf.
    16. How wolves find food.
    17. Wolves can wag this.
    18. A wolf family.
    1. The highest ranking wolf.
    2. The sound an angry wolf makes.
    5. Wolves and humans both hunt whitetail _____.
    6. Wolves smell with this.
    8. Wolves listen with these.
    11. Wolves are covered with soft, warm _____.
    14. Wolves are associated with the full _____.
    15. Wolves walk on four of these.


    Wolfquest Game-Free Download

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    WolfQuest: Survival of the Pack, now updated with bug fixes, is available for free download!

    An immersive, 3D wildlife simulation game, WolfQuest challenges players to learn about wolf ecology by living the life of a wild wolf in Yellowstone National Park.

    The single-player game consists of two episodes. In the first episode, Amethyst Mountain, players explore the wilderness, hunt elk, and encounter stranger wolves in a quest to find a mate. In the newly released second episode, Slough Creek, players find a den, establish a territory, raise pups and defend them from predators such as coyotes and grizzly bears. Online multiplayer games let up to five players form a pack to explore and hunt together.

    The WolfQuest experience goes beyond the game with an active online community where you can discuss the game with other players, chat with wolf biologists, and share artwork and stories about wolves.
    Free Download here!!


    The Minnesota Zoo and eduweb have partnered to develop WolfQuest, an innovative project that brings the immersive, compelling drama and action of video games to informal science learning while creating a model for nationwide distribution. Designed for players age nine to adult, WolfQuest teaches wolf behavior and ecology through exciting gameplay and intense social interactions.
    Image: screenshot of the WolfQuest interactive
    In the News
    “The level of realism, and also the goal, which is to affect real conservation behavior change, is what makes this game unique.”
    Steve Feldman
    American Zoo and Aquarium Association
    “It’s got great educational value while at the same time it’s engaging. I think this game has the potential to chart some new territory.”
    David Walsh
    National Institute on Media and the Family
    News Articles and Reviews
    Star Tribune article and review
    WolfQuest’s three major components comprise a powerful informal learning experience:
    • WolfQuest Game: WolfQuest is an immersive, 3D wildlife simulation game that lets players learn about wolf ecology by living the life of a wild wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Players play alone or with up to four friends in on-line multiplayer games. In Episode 1: Amethyst Mountain players explore the wilderness, hunt elk, and encounter stranger wolves in a quest to find a mate. The new release features episode 2: Slough Creek in which players find a den, establish a territory, raise pups and defend them from predators such as coyotes, grizzly bears and other stranger wolves.Since its launch two years ago, WolfQuest has received a number of awards including a 2009 MUSE Awards from the American Association of Museums and The Editor’s Choice Award by Children’s Technology Review. It was also selected by the National Science Foundation to present at the 2009 Senate Education Technology Showcase in Washington D.C. WolfQuest has been downloaded nearly 400,000 times in over 200 countries. The online community forum currently has about 150,000 registered users who have made over one milliion posts.In 2009, a comprehensive summative evaluation run by the Institute for Learning Innovation showed that player interest in, connection to, and knowledge about wolves increased significantly after playing WolfQuest. Throughout the evaluation, WolfQuest was shown to be highly effective in achieving its goals and providing a rich and rewarding learning experience for the players. The Minnesota Zoo leads a national network of zoos and science education centers that promote WolfQuest through their websites including the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, Yellowstone National Park, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C. Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, the Toronto Zoo, the California Wolf Center, the Knoxville Zoo, the Rosamond Gifford Park Zoo in New York, the Phoenix Zoo and the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center in Missouri. See Game Features >
    • WolfQuest Web Site: The WolfQuest game is the focus of a game community Web site where players can learn about the game and download the latest version, as well as post tips and strategies, ask questions of wolf experts, share personal wolf artwork and stories, test their wolf knowledge with online polls and quizzes, compete for prizes, and participate in partner promotions. The Web site also features background information about wolf ecology and conservation and educational materials for classroom use.
    • WolfQuest Network: WolfQuest‘s impact is greatly expanded by a national network of Informal Science Education (ISE) institutions. Each institution publicizes the project to current and expanded audiences in its region.
    WolfQuest is made possible through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) with local support provided by Best Buy Children’s Foundation, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the ADC Foundation.

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