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Wolves Have 21 Distinct Howling 'Dialects,' Researchers Say

Feb 08, 2016 08:07 PM EST

Researchers have for the first time translated the different howling dialects of wolves. A new study from the University of Cambridge suggests that the animals' "accents" or "vocal fingerprints" largely depend on breed and location. 

A total of 21 howl types were identified based on pitch and fluctuation and then assigned to specific subspecies of wolf, as well as jackals and domestic dogs. For example, the howling repertoire of the timber wolf is heavy with low, flat howls, while the critically endangered red wolf has a high, looping howl. Researchers believe their findings may help conservationists protect certain subspecies, and even shed light on the earliest evolution of human language. 

"Wolves may not be close to us taxonomically, but ecologically their behavior in a social structure is remarkably close to that of humans. That's why we domesticated dogs -- they are very similar to us," lead researcher Dr. Arik Kershenbaum, from Cambridge's Department of Zoology, said a news release

The origin of human language remains somewhat of a mystery, as the vocalizations of our closest existing biological relatives such as chimpanzees are relatively simple.

"Understanding the communication of existing social species (wolves and dolphins, for example) is essential to uncovering the evolutionary trajectories that led to more complex communication in the past, eventually leading to our own linguistic ability," Kershenbaum added. 

Of the 6,000 howls recorded from both captive and wild animals in Australia, India, Europe and the U.S., researchers narrowed them down to 2,000 and fed them into machine learning algorithms to classify the howls into discrete types.

While the howling repertoires of most of the 13 species analyzed were very distinct, some had very similar qualities. This, researchers say, may ultimately have an impact on interbreeding and, in at least one case, threaten the survival of a species.

For instance, researchers found significant overlap between the howling vocabulary of the red wolf and the coyote. 

"The survival of red wolves in the wild is threatened by interbreeding with coyotes, and we found that the howling behavior of the two species is very similar. 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," Kershenbaum explained in the university's release

However, researchers are still unsure what the different howl types mean and what the animals are trying to communicate.  

"We are currently working on research in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. 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 to distance communication or pack warnings, for example," Kershenbaum said. "The presence of complex referential communication in species that must communicate to survive was probably a crucial step in the evolution of language. I think we can shed a lot of light on early evolution of our own use of language by studying the vocalization of animals that are socially and behaviorally similar to us, if not necessarily taxonomically closely related."

In terms of conservation, researchers also suggest using recordings to recreate more accurate howling behaviors that imitate territorial markings, thus encouraging wolf packs to steer clear of farms and livestock.

Their study was recently published in the journal Behavioural Processes

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