Scientists Need Your Help to Decode the Secret Language of Wolves

Scientists are asking citizens to analyze barks, howls, and yelps for clues to behavior that could save endangered species.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Dogs bark, wolves howl, and coyotes yelp—but what are they saying? Researchers who are asking that question need your help. The answer could benefit the conservation of several species related to your household pooch.

Welcome to the world of canine crowdsourcing.

The Candid Howl Project, an international collaboration of biologists, behaviorists, sound experts, and others, is encouraging people to analyze thousands of recordings of dogs, dingoes, coyotes, and wolves in the safety of their own homes. The nonprofit International Wolf Center recently asked its nearly 70,000 Facebook followers to volunteer.

The information gathered will provide clues to the meaning of each type of howl, such as defense of territory or preparation for hunting.

The research might benefit endangered gray wolves, common targets of ranchers. “We are identify clear differences between howls of different ‘meanings,’ ” Arik Kershenbaum of the University of Cambridge and the project’s creator, wrote in an email.

For example, how does a territorial howl differ from a group-cohesion howl?

“If we could do that, it would be possible to develop active deterrent techniques to keep wolves away from ranches by playback of ‘appropriate’ recorded howls,” he noted.

Volunteers are asked to listen to recordings online while viewing a spectrogram, or graphic image of the sounds, and then use their mouse to trace the strength and pitch of each howl. Every recording is heard by several volunteers to ensure consistency among their analyses.

Why enlist the public?

“When we have many thousands of calls recorded, it would take a very long time to go through each one separately,” said Kershenbaum. “The human brain is the best pattern recognition system we know of, so it seems a natural solution to use multiple and unbiased humans to categorize the howls.”

Another goal is objectivity. “As researchers intimately involved with the project, we have to be very careful not to categorize the data subconsciously in a way that might affect the results,” he said.

The recordings were collected in the wild and at zoos—in addition to homemade recordings of domestic dogs, which owners can upload on the website.

The four wild species being analyzed are

• gray wolves, which were almost hunted to extinction but are making a comeback;

• red wolves, rare North American animals with a population of 100 and listed as critically endangered: In 2013, ten percent of the population was killed by hunters who mistook them for coyotes;

• coyotes, which are ubiquitous across North America and frequently hunted as pests, but as the only large predator in many regions, they play a crucial role in balancing ecosystems;

• New Guinea singing dogs, a dingo similar to domestic dogs whose 5,000-year isolated existence on Papua New Guinea has created unusual behaviors, especially melodic “singing.”

Kershenbaum said the research could aid conservation.

“Understanding the [vocal] behavioral difference between these closely related species can help us assess genetic isolation and hybridization,” he said.

Hybridization is a serious threat to red wolves, which breed with coyotes. “It would be useful to know whether the howls of the different species could act as a behavioral barrier to interbreeding,” Kershenbaum said.

So why study dogs?

“They largely bark rather than howl,” Kershenbaum conceded. “But some feral and ancestral dog breeds, such as dingoes, have more complex vocal behavior. Studying this can help us discover more about the process of the domestication of dogs.”

As for wolves howling at the moon, Kershenbaum called it more of a “legend” than a distinct behavior.

“Having said that,” he added, “examining how howling behavior changes under different environmental circumstances is definitely within our remit.”