Popular in mythology, folklore, and movies, wolves have become an iconic symbol as they howl against a moon in the night sky.
However, wolves can do much more than howl when they communicate. Speculation on these sounds includes whether or not wolves can purr.
Wolves do not purr. They primarily communicate with different types of howls using different tones and pitches. These include lone, pup, confrontation, chorus, and affection howls. Other vocalizations include growling, whining, barking, yapping, and whimpering. Often vocalizations are paired with body language that indicates aggressiveness, submissiveness, playfulness, or affection. Wolves also scent-mark their territory and food sources with urine, feces, and pheromones.
Wolves belong to the Canidae family which also includes foxes, jackals, and domestic dogs.
They do not purr like domestic cats, cheetahs, or guinea pigs. Wolves, however, produce a variety of sounds as well as use body language to communicate their intentions.
Howling is the most common sound that wolves produce.
Wolves are nocturnal but don’t howl at the moon. However, they lift their snouts up when producing this sound to project it over longer distances.
Often howling is done to communicate with other wolves over a long distance, up to 6 miles away in forested areas, and up to 10 miles in the tundra. Wolves have excellent hearing in order to be able to hear this sound from each other.
The wolf’s howl is a deep and continuous sound lasting half a second up to 11 seconds long, with a constant or smooth variance in pitch.
A lone wolf may howl several times over an average of 35 seconds, and a pack may collectively howl on average for 85 seconds.
An alpha (male) wolf tends to display a deeper and lower-pitched howl than others in the pack. Pack howling is typically initiated by one alpha wolf, and then others join in subsequently.
Howling creates a social bond for packmates. It keeps pack members in contact with each other over a large territory and roaming as they search for food sources.
Sometimes if younger, or lower-ranking wolves, join in pack howling they may be punished (attacked). Lone wolves may howl less when hiding from other nearby packs.
Howling occurs for the following reasons:
- To assemble a pack
- Claim territory
- Warn intruders away from territory or a kill
- To identify other wolves
5 Types Of Howls
There are several types of howls that a wolf will produce:
1. Lonesome Howl
This howl is produced by a single, lone, wolf, with sudden changes in a pitch modulation. This howl signals that the wolf is alone looking for others. This may be to find pack members or form a new pack.
When seeking food sources, wolves separate as lone wolves, covering territories as large as 1,200 square miles. Wolves need to produce a lonesome howl to share that they have a kill or to rejoin the pack.
Packmates can hear this howl, however, it poses risks to the lone wolf. Rival, adjacent, packs can also hear this howl. They may seek the lone wolf out and attack it in an attempt to protect their territory and prey sources.
2. Pup Howl
The babies, pups, of wolves howl in shorter and higher-pitched howls, due to their smaller size and lung capacity. The pitch modulation is similar to a lonesome howl.
Pups tend to howl after hearing an adult, vocalizing to practice their howling skills, often in the safety of their dens.
As young wolves join the pack for hunting and traveling, they are in less secure surroundings, and frequent practice is risky.
At around 6 months, pups learn to selectively howl like their adult role models.
3. Aggressive Or Confrontational Howl
The alpha male, leader of the pack, will howl at and approach a stranger. His tone will be lower and coarser, indicating aggressiveness and confrontation. Often the howl is enough warning and a stranger will move away.
This kind of howling also serves to maintain space in the territories between rival packs.
Howling may also indicate that a fresh kill belongs to them. However, it can pose a risk as it gives away the location of members of the pack or a food source.
4. Pack Chorus Howls
Packs can vary in size from 2 to 30 members, with an average of 10.
Competing rival packs can give the appearance of being larger or more dominant.
They may stand tall, raise their hackles (hair along the spine), rigidly extend their ears and tails, and produce lower-pitched howls to sound like an alpha.
When the alpha wolf of a pack starts its howl, the others will join in succession creating a loud and voluminous polyphonic effect to indicate their size.
The chorus of howling creates a modulated, rapid pitch-changing effect that sounds chaotic and threatening.
If the territory has trees, rock cliffs, and valleys, the sound can scatter and echo, making the howls sound even more impressive.
Smaller packs may reserve their howls, using them only when needed, to keep larger packs from knowing their location.
This video gives the listener what a chorus of wolves howling sounds like:
5. Affectionate Howls
A 2013 study found that wolves also howl to show affection. Scientists studied the cortisol (stress hormone) levels of wolf saliva and found that they lacked the hormone, indicating that the howling was not due to anxiety.
A wolf may howl with greater frequency to a pack member that they have a strong social bond with, showing their affection for them.
Wolves use howling most often, however, they can also produce other sounds such as:
- Growling (aggressiveness, confrontation, playing)
- Whining (often by the adult female at the den site; pups are playful or anxious; submissiveness)
- Barking (in conjunction with growls; occasionally with howls to alert)
- High-pitched yapping (pups)
- Whimper/Yelp (pain, startled)
Other Forms Of Communication
Wolves have other ways of expressing themselves using pheromones and body language.
Wolves have a sense of smell that is 100 times greater than humans. Marked territory sends a strong signal to rival packs, and it also helps pack members find each other.
They will mark territory with their urine and feces. Wolves also have pheromones in glands in their anus, genitalia, skin, toes, tails, and eyes to leave their scent behind.
Wolves also use urine to mark an empty food cache, indicating they do not need to dig there anymore.
Body And Tail Posture
Body postures can indicate statues. For example, the alpha male holds its tail up the highest and the others hold it down between their legs.
Dominance: Ears, Hairs, Teeth
Aggressive or confrontational wolves will stick their ears up, raise the hairs along their spine, and bare their teeth.
Conversely, a fearful or submissive wolf will flatten its ears and lower its body and tail. It may also roll over and expose its soft belly in passive submission to accept a dominant wolf’s authority.
Affection: Sharing And Touching
Affectionate wolves may share a kill with another first.
They may also socially groom each other by licking and nibbling or sniffing another’s genital area.
Wolves can be seen cuddling, sleeping, or touching each other in affection.
A pack member will stretch its front legs out while raising its hind quarters like it is bowing down.
They may then engage in playful chasing, and jaw sparring while whining or growling. This strengthens social bonds and physical skills.
Relaxed: Ears, Tail, Belly
Wolves’ ears may appear off to the side and have a neutral or wagging tail.
They may also expose their underbelly by laying or rolling on their side, indicating submissiveness or trust towards pack members.
Wolves do not purr and are most often heard howling.
Howls consist of enduring, polyphonic melodies to indicate dominance, pack strength, social bonds, and location.
Pups will howl often to practice adult skills. Wolves will create other vocalizations, such as growls, whines, or barks.
Wolves will mark territory and food sources with pheromones, urine, and feces. They also use body language to indicate their status and intentions with other wolves in and out of the pack.