Wolves Have Local Howl Accents

作者:未知 来源:科学美国人 2016-04-08

"She has this thing where she goes to a movie theater, watching a horror movie and there was a wolf howling in the background.” University of Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum, talking about his collaborator Holly Root-Gutteridge, a biologist at Syracuse University. She said to herself, ‘Well, that's wrong. That's clearly a European wolf and not a North American wolf like it should be in the scene.'"

Slight variations in the way we speak allow us to tell whether someone is from Boston or New York just by listening to them. The same turns out to be true for the animals known as canids, which includes wolves, dogs and coyotes. They all howl to communicate—but those howls vary. Canids can tell which howls belong to their known associates and which belong to strangers.

So Kershenbaum and Root-Gutteridge decided to categorize the howls of different canids around the world. Together with colleagues, they compiled recordings of more than 2,000 canid howls, including European wolves, Mexican wolves, arctic wolves, dingoes, coyotes, golden jackals, domestic dogs, New Guinea singing dogs, and more. A computer program sorted the howls into different types. The study was published in the journal Behavioral Processes. [Arik Kershenbaum et al, Disentangling canid howls across multiple species and subspecies: Structure in a complex communication channel]

Based on the analysis, canids use 21 different kinds of howls to communicate. If you think of the howls as words, then all canids have the same vocabulary—but each species or sub-species has its own unique dialect. Some words are more common in one dialect, while other words are more common in another dialect and so on. By matching dialect with species and geography, researchers could monitor endangered species, like red wolves, just by listening.

[AK:] "Being able to distinguish between the howls of a coyote and the howls of a red wolf opens the possibility for techniques of passive monitoring, passive population monitoring, using acoustics."

Meanwhile, ranchers have tried to broadcast specific howls to discourage grey wolves from feasting on their livestock, but it's never been successful.

[AK:] "Because we don't really know what message we're conveying to the wolves when we play back an arbitrary howl. For all we know, we could be playing back a howl that means come and eat, there's lots of interesting food over here."

The research could thus finally bring peace to the conflict between ranchers and wolves, by finally speaking to the predators in their own language.

—Jason G. Goldman