Humans and howls: wolves and the future of animal communication

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Wolf howls have seldom been subjected to studies focusing on their semantic content, especially in wild populations where the context is natural but the availability of contextual clues for researchers is limited. The meaning of wolf howls as interpreted by humans depends on the human's position in ecological, cultural, and scientific context. I describe human interpretations of wolf howling from the perspective of amateur observers, historians, and biologists; the historical context of wolf howl research within ethology and questions about semantics in animal communication research; and the possibility of semantic differences in wolf howls from different contexts recorded in the wild. Wolf howls were recorded in Yellowstone National Park in 2017 and howls from territorial borders were compared with howls from territory interiors. Howls from the two groups were not discriminable. There may be no structural differences containing semantic information about territorial content, or the location relative to a border may not be a useful proxy for territorial message. Questions about intended meaning as opposed to observed function in animal communication are difficult to answer and often collide with humans' desire to be unique in their communication systems. Questions about wolves run into political and cultural baggage arising from humans' and wolves' history as ecological competitors. As semantic research in animal communication develops, wolves may become a coveted subject species because of their social living, strong individual/personal characters, and group coordination. These studies and their results will always be filtered through a thick barrier of human biases and reflections--possibly more so than any other non-primate in the world--but information about wolf communication can be disentangled from human culture in both scientific and vernacular accounts with enough historical information about the sources of the humans' biases. Future research on this topic will require simultaneous approaches from different angles, including ethological, historical, neurological, perceptual, and socioecological.




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