Wolves are highly social animals that live in well-organized family units called packs. Cooperative living gives wolf families a number of benefits. It facilitates successful hunting, pup-rearing, defending pack territory, and more. Communication is key to successful group living and wolves communicate effectively in a number of ways.
Although wolves use varied vocalizations to express themselves, if you ask anyone about wolf sounds, it's likely the howl that comes to mind. Howling helps keep family members (or pack-mates) together. Because a pack territory range over vast areas, it’s not unusual for members of the pack to become separated from one another. Wolves can call to one another over great distances by howling. A howl’s low pitch and long duration is well suited for transmission on the wild landscape – a wolf’s howl can be heard up to 10 miles away in open terrain! Wolves can howl to locate other wolves, advertise the size of their pack or territory, to warn other family members of danger using a bark howl, and more. Just like us, each wolf has a unique voice so distinctive features of each individual's howl allow wolves to identify each other. And when every member of the pack joins the chorus, the singular howls and their harmonies give the listener the impression that pack is larger than it actually is. Also interesting, researchers have now found that wolves howl more frequently to members of their pack with whom they spend more time thus suggesting a link between relationship quality and howling frequency.
Howling isn’t the only vocalization employed by wolves. They also bark, huff, whine, whimper, yelp, growl, and snarl.
Wolves mainly use body language to convey the rules of the family or pack. Wolf families usually consist of the breeding pair (parents) and their offspring of varying ages. Sometimes unrelated wolves will join a family too. In order to maintain order, wolves will rely on their posture, tail position, facial expression and ear position to articulate their status and role within the family. Wolves will also use body language to communicate intentions or to initiate some fun.
The parents (sometimes referred to as the “alpha” pair) are the leaders of the pack and they express their status with erect posture and tails carried high. The less dominant family members exhibit their position through submissive behavior. With lowered tails and posture, less dominant wolves acknowledge their role and rank in the family hierarchy. Pawing, tail tucking, and muzzle-licking are among the submissive gestures expressed by less dominant wolves. Although hungry wolf pups hoping to elicit regurgitation in adults employ these behaviors, they’re expressed by adults to function as a sign of affection and reaffirmation of their social status.
- Play: When seeking to play, wolves will dance and bow playfully. Playtime can also include a game of chase, jaw sparring, and varied vocalizations. For wolves, playtime isn’t only fun, it strengthens family bonds.
- Greeting: Wolf greeting behavior involves tail-wagging, muzzle licking and tail tucking - gestures of intimacy and enthusiasm that reaffirm the unique emotional bonds that shape the foundation of the family.