The first ever large study of howling reveals that wolves and other species from canid family howl in their own distinctive dialects
Howling of wolves may sound similar to each other but researchers have found that different wolf species howl in their own distinctive dialects.
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Researchers extensively studied the variations of howling in “canid” family which includes wolves, jackals and dogs and found that different species and subspecies use their own distinct howling dialects or ‘vocal fingerprints’ to communicate with each other.
For the large-scale study, researchers used computer algorithms for the first time to analyze around 2,000 different howling, which were narrowed down to 21 different types based on pitch and fluctuation and matching up patterns of howling. In other words, howl types are similar to how humans have different languages in different regions around the world.
“We found that different species and subspecies showed markedly different use of howl types, indicating that howl modulation is not arbitrary, but can be used to distinguish one population from another.” Researchers wrote in the study.
Research found that some howls were significantly different from others and were easy to distinguish while few have very minimal difference in terms of flat to high modulation. For instance, timber wolves have heavy, flat and low howl while endangered red wolves howl in high, loopy vocal.
Researchers recorded the howls of both captive and wild animals from Australia to India to Europe and United States and they suggest that these findings could be used to track and manage wild wolf populations especially to conserve red wolves in wild.
“The survival of red wolves in the wild is threatened by inbreeding with coyotes and we found the howling behavior of the two species is very similar,” said Lead researcher Dr Arik Kershenbaum from the University of Cambridge. “
“This may be one reason why they are so likely to mate with each other and perhaps we can take advantage of the subtle differences in howling behavior we have now discovered to keep the populations apart.”
The origin of language development in humans is still a mystery and this study can also provide clues about the earliest evolution of the use of our own language.
“Wolves may not be close to us taxonomically, but ecologically their behavior in a social structure is remarkably close to that of humans,” said Kershenbaum. “Understanding the communication of existing social species is essential to uncovering the evolutionary trajectories that led to more complex communication in the past, eventually leading to our own linguistic ability.”
However, the study is unable to identify the meaning of different types of howls or what they are communicating to each other. In the future, researchers are planning to observe wolves in real environment to discern the meaning of their howls.
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Kershenbaum says.“We are currently working on research in Yellowstone National Park in the US using multiple recording devices and triangulation technology to try and pick up howl sounds and location. In this way, we might be able to tell whether certain calls relate distance communication or pack warnings, for example.”