If you think of a wolf howling, it is most likely associated with the mental image of the animal on the edge of a cliff, backlit by a full moon. However, there is no linkage between the phase of the moon and the tendency for howling. So, then, what inspires the song?
Wolves are incredibly social creatures that live in hierarchical social groups known as packs. These packs can roam up to 1000 square miles depending on location, which makes communication incredibly important. Howling is used to attract mates, and because larger males have lower toned howls, it allows the female to seek out the strongest father for her pups.
Howling is also used to group other wolves for hunting, or to discourage other wolves encroaching on their territory. On clear, quiet nights, wolves can be heard up to ten miles away, allowing the pack to have a more coordinated effort when attacking prey and enemies. Additionally, having a howl that carries a large distance is helpful for the pack to locate an injured wolf. Wolves also howl to mourn the separation of a pack member.
The wolf uses body language, mostly with the head and tail, as well as the tone and length of howl, to give context to the meaning of the howling. However, not all howls have to have a life-or-death meaning. It has been thoroughly documented that wolves will howl together during playtime, simply as a bonding mechanism. In a pack situation, bonding as a group is critically important.
Identifying individual wolves based on howl has been problematic until now. A new computer program analyzes the pitch and amplitude of the howl. Over 100 wolves were tested with this program, and the computer identified the individual with 97% accuracy. This program could help to identify and track wolves, gaining a better understanding of their movements in the wild.
Wolves used to be spread throughout the globe, though they were greatly reduced in numbers particularly in Western Europe and North America. In the early 1980s, Canis lupis found itself on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List, categorized as vulnerable. By 2004, global populations had stabilized and it was reclassified as Least Concern. Certain regional populations still face threats due to habitat destruction and overhunting.