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The Language of Wolves

How do wolves communicate?


Body Language cont’d from The Language of Wolves.

In a wolf pack, order is regularly reinforced by displays of dominance and submission through a complex mix of vocal and physical communications. Wolves employ a variety of non-vocal forms of communication to express and maintain their status, relying on their posture, facial expression, ear and tail positioning, and more to communicate their intention. Body language can also be accompanied and reinforced by vocalizations.

Many dominance and submission displays are not violent or aggressive, as the subordinate wolf will quickly adopt a submissive posture. Often, subtle messages, like an authoritative stare from a dominant wolf and, in response, an averted glance by a subordinate wolf, are enough to keep individual status understood. Alternately, especially if willingness to submit isn’t demonstrated, assertive aggression may ensue. Mistakenly, people too often interpret assertive dominance display language as being malicious and excessively cruel, but in reality, it is simply one of many ways wolves communicate and it generally does not result in any significant physical harm.

A wolf’s posture, when interacting with fellow pack members, says a lot about its status in the pack. Subordinates crouch, trying to appear as small as possible and often lick the dominant wolf’s muzzle like a puppy, while alphas are readily identifiable as they broadcast confidence with their tall posture, stiff-legged gaits and tails sticking out and slightly raised.

Wolves frequently use ear and tail positioning, as well as facial expressions, to communicate. For example, ears flat back, close to the head with the tail tucked between the legs, accompanied by a slinking, slumping body posture, communicates submission. Ears perked up or forward with the tail straight out and slightly up indicates dominance. Ears sticking straight up or low and out to the side, teeth bared and a wrinkled snout, clearly communicates a very cross and threatening message.

Sometimes the lips will slightly curl, revealing just a few teeth as an initial warning, which is often all that is needed to send a clear message. And a reciprocating lick to the nose by the submissive wolf may help diffuse tension and avoid escalation.

When seeking to play with a fellow pack mate, a wolf will often stretch their front legs out and raise their hind quarters in the air in what is called a play bow. Play can include a game of chase. Or it can involve jaw sparring, from high-energy duels where two wolves will rear up on their hind legs and engage their front legs and jaws, to casual jaw sparring even while lying and rolling on the ground. A range of whining, groaning, and growling vocalizations usually accompanies jaw sparring. All of this fortifies bonds and status and hones physical skills.

Most commonly, wolves are relaxed. Their ears may also be off to the side, but a relaxed body and a neutral or wagging tail communicate a calm disposition. Not surprisingly, much of these same complex communication skills can also be observed in your family companion, the dog.

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Vocalizations cont’d from The Language of Wolves.

Within a pack, howls can begin as a solitary effort, but usually they quickly grow to involve every member of the pack. Two or more wolves can also initiate a howl together. Lone wolves will also howl, perhaps to find company or a mate or to reconnect with his or her pack.

Howling is a sound that is designed to travel great distances. It can be heard by wolves many miles away. Often when a howl has ended, it is clear that wolves pause and carefully listen for a response.

Howls often accompany or instigate a pack rally, which is a very unmistakable high-energy expression of group excitement and solidarity, involving a lot of greetings and tail-wagging. Collective pack energy and uncontainable enthusiasm seem to boil over in these moments. It appears wolves often find it obligatory to participate in these rallies, even if the excitement results in minor tiffs between individuals.


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Scent Communication cont’d from The Language of Wolves.

Scat and urine are used to mark and communicate territorial boundaries to other wolves. Male and female urine differ in chemical composition, so scent marking—urinating on trees, shrubs, etc.—can advertise availability. When in estrus, the chemical composition of a female’s urine changes, signaling her readiness to mate. A paired couple may leave double scent marks, declaring their status as mates and warning other wolves to stay away. It is likely that wolves can identify one another by the smell of their urine.

Scent rolling is another way wolves employ chemistry to communicate. What they are communicating isn’t exactly known. But when wolves find something with a strong or unusual odor like the remains of an animal carcass, they seem to find it irresistible and will roll in their prized discovery, coating their fur with the odor.


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