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Why do wolves howl? Scientists unravel mystery.

Researchers have discovered a correlation between the number of times that a wolf howls and the strength of the relationship with other members of the pack. 

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A new study shows that wolves howl more frequently to members of their pack with whom they spend more time, suggesting a link between relationship quality and howling frequency.

Cynthia Kidwell | Shutterstock.com

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A howl pierces the calm night, its eerie majesty a signal that wolves are afoot. But what is the purpose of wolf howls, and what do they mean?

As might be guessed, wolves howl to establish contact with one another. Perhaps more interesting, researchers have now found that wolves howled more frequently to members of their pack with whom they spent more time. In other words, the strength of the relationship between wolves predicted how many times a wolf howled, said Friederike Range, a researcher and co-director of the Wolf Science Center at the University of Vienna in Austria. [See Amazing Photos of Wolves]

Keeping in touch

In the study, detailed today (Aug. 22) in the journal Current Biology, the researchers removed one wolf at a time from a captive wolf pack kept inside a large enclosure at the Wolf Science Center. They then took each wolf for a 45-minute walk into the surrounding woods while measuring the howling rates of the animals left behind.

The howling rate, they found, was directly related to how much "quality time" the howler and the removed wolf spent together, as defined by positive interactions like playing and grooming. Howling rate was also related to each wolf's status within the pack; the pack's howling rates were higher when more-dominant animals left. That makes sense, given that dominant animals have significant control over the group's activities; separated wolves could understandably want to establish contact to ensure the cohesion of the group, Range said.

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