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The Family That Howls Together Stays Together: Wolf Pups

Seacrest Wolf Preserve
Gray Wolf, Canis lupus lycaon (Eastern timber wolf subspecies)

"If you are lucky, you might see some of Montana’s wolf pups emerging from their dens starting in mid-May. At first the pups stay at the entrance of the den, where they have been holed up with their mother since being born some three weeks earlier. They startle easily at first, disappearing frequently into the den, but soon they are exploring the area around the mouth of the den and socializing with the rest of the pack.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the socializing is when, a couple of weeks after emerging from the den, the pups join the rest of the pack in family howling sessions. Although wolves howl all year long, these howls seem to play an especially important role in solidifying the younger wolves’ association with the rest of the pack.

While howling is clearly an important part of wolf bonding and communication, there is much more to it. Indeed, wolf researchers have identified a number of wolf vocalizations, including yelping, growling, barking, and moaning. In addition, wolves possess a number of odor-secreting glands in their skin, backs, and paws, as well as glands that make each individual’s scat recognizable to the rest of the pack.

Wolves also socialize using body language: tail up to signify happiness, tail tucked between the legs to signify submission. A pup that wishes to play will engage in a play-bow, with its forequarters lowered while its tail is raised and wagging. Of course, a wolf with bared teeth, wrinkled nose and raised hackles is issuing a threat. Even physical contact must be understood; a paw placed on the snow indicates superiority, and all pups must learn the difference between play fighting and the real thing.

Mastering these complex communication processes is vital if the young wolves are to survive and thrive in wolf culture. A wolf that is in the process of leaving the pack will often stop howling with the rest, and a wolf that is being kicked out will be prevented from participating in the group howling sessions.

This mastery of communication through an array of subtle signals leads to one of the most curious evolutionary twists in the animal kingdom. While we can only speculate on the exact process, some wolves clearly found that it was to their advantage to associate with humans. Because of their almost uncanny ability to understand subtle clues, wolves were bred to act as guard dogs, pack animals, herders, hunters, and perhaps most importantly, companions.

Recent research has shown that domestic dogs have a remarkable understanding of human intention. They can find food located on a person simply looking at the place where the food was hidden; they are easy to train; and they respond to human vocal tone as well as to specific words. Indeed, many dog owners will swear that their dog understands them better than most people do.

Over time, the shape and behavior of dogs has changed so much that they bear little resemblance to their lupine cousins. Modern breeds, from schnauzers to Labradors to Great Danes, are, despite appearances, just a short evolutionary leap from being wolves. Those first awkward steps that wolf pups take out of the den and subsequent socialization with their pack mirrors the process that our pets must go through with us.

While no one is going to confuse a wolf with an Irish setter, the howls that fill the valleys of western Montana are a reminder of how close to wild nature we truly are."

(Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 5/24/15 & 5/29/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., or Fridays at 4:54 p.m.,  or via podcast.)