The Songs of the Wolves

Wolves’ howls are eerie, beautiful and wild. But what are they actually saying to each other?

The grey wolf trio, Idaho, USA. Credit: Jim and Jamie Dutcher/National Geographic Creative.

The grey wolf trio, Idaho, USA. Credit: Jim and Jamie Dutcher/National Geographic Creative.

As the heroes fled the dark castle for the darker woods, Count Dracula’s ‘children of the night’ began to make their ‘music’: a distant chorus of lupine howls, echoing through the Transylvanian night. I paused the movie. ‘That’s not a European wolf, the howl’s all wrong!’ I told my long-suffering companion. ‘That wolf belongs in the backwoods of California!’

After hundreds of hours listening to thousands of wolves for my PhD, the difference between howls was obvious. The voice of a Russian wolf was nothing like that of a Canadian and a jackal was so utterly different again that it was like listening to Farsi and French. I believed that there must be geographic and subspecies distinctions. Other researchers had made this proposition before, but no one had put together a large enough collection of howls to test it properly. A few years later, my degree finished, I told my Dracula story to the zoologist Arik Kershenbaum at the University of Cambridge. He promptly suggested we explore how attuned to wolves I really am. Are there differences between canid species and subspecies and, if so, could these reflect diverging cultures?

When animals call to each other, they are communicating in a single stream of information from caller to listener. Until modern recording technology was invented, any acoustic communication lasted only as long as the echo. So while we can hear difference in modern human speech, with more than 6,000 extant languages and an unknowable number of local accents for each language, we can’t trace the origin of language from before writing or know how ancient peoples would have sounded. Before 1860, when de Martinville made the first acoustic recording, the world of speech must remain silent to us, though we can sometimes hear scattered fragments of dead languages still alive in our own.

The question of when and how language first emerged is the topic of tremendous controversy – it has even been called ‘the hardest question in science’. My work is on what information can be extracted from vocalisations. It is a first step in understanding where the physical body dictates the shape and form of the call, and where the caller has control. For example, a piano player is limited to combinations of a piano’s 88 keys, but a song played on a Steinway will have different sound qualities to the same song on a bar’s upright. In addition, different tunes can also be played. Separating the characteristics of the instrument from the choices of the player is essential before we can understand what meaning those choices might convey.

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This article was originally published in Aeon Magazine.