The language of wolves: study finds howling ‘dialects’

Brittany A. Roston - Feb 9, 2016
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The language of wolves: study finds howling ‘dialects’

A team of researchers have found that wolves speak in distinct howling 'dialects,' doing so with the aid of an algorithm that analyzed in excess of 2,000 recordings of howling. A total of 13 canid species/subspecies, including dogs and wolves, were processed and the result was a roster of 21 howling styles with distinctly similar features. Wolves, for their part, howl in certain ways depending on their species.

The howling dialects could help shed light on the evolution of human language, and also help with conservation efforts, making it possible to identify a particular species based on its howling. As one example, red wolves were found to howl with higher pitches than, for example, timber wolves.

Of particular interest were instances where one species' howling was similar enough to another's that it may pave the way for interbreeding. Researchers found that red wolves and coyotes are one pair with similar howling dialects, sharing many of the same traits as the other.

That finding is especially interesting in light of the so-called "coywolf" hybrids increasingly cropping up across North America. Researchers had found that coywolves were mostly a wolf/coyote hybrid with a bit of domesticated dog tossed in. The genetic mixture makes the hybrid wolves more suitable to life in cities and in environments where a simple wolf or coyote or dog may not be able to survive.

In the future, the researchers hope to uncover the meaning behind the howling, not just the distinctions between them -- a task that will be far harder than processing recordings using machine learning, though possible with enough time and resources.

Wolves aren't the only species with their own dialects, of course. Back in September, a study surfaced in which researchers detailed how sperm whale clan speak their own dialects, distinguishing them from other clans. In that case, the whales spoke using clicking, and one clan was found to have a pause mixed in that wasn't found in a different clan. These are referred to as "coda dialects," and research indicates they're a learned language, not something innate.

VIA: Discovery News