Ask A Scientist

Do wolves howl at the moon?

Asked by: Ivan Burkhalter
School: Maine Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Baseball, drawing 
Career Interest: Astronaut

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Bioengineering; Director, BU Scholars Program

Research area: Turbulence, Fluid Mechanics, Aerodynamics, Environmental Ethics, and Modeling Ecosystems, Predator-prey Modeling, Restoration of Wolves
PhD school: University of Virginia, Aerospace Engineering, 1977
Interests/hobbies: All things Italian, Creative Arts, Model trains & cars
Family: Wife, Karen, is a registered yoga teacher at Yoga for Everybody at the Orthopedic Associates; lives with 2 Alaskan Malamutes, four more in our hearts

Whether or not a wolf howls at the moon is still unknown. What is known however is that there are very few sounds in nature which have captured our imaginations more than the sound of a wolf howling. Have you ever heard a wolf howl? Maybe you have experienced the sheer magic of hearing wolves at Ross Park Zoo howl or maybe you have heard this mystical sound in movie theaters or on television. It’s no surprise that we are captivated by the sound of a howl for it somehow reminds us of our connection to the natural world, a connection that seems ever more distant. The great environmentalist Aldo Leopold once suggested that we had to be as old as a mountain to understand the howl of the wolf. Let’s examine what we now know about the wolf howl and reflect on what the wolf might be trying to tell us now in the beginning of the 21st century. Howling is only one of the types of vocal communication the wolf utilizes. They are also known to whimper, yip, growl and bark. While the functions of howling are not fully understood, several different types of howling have been identified, each used under different circumstances. Wolves howl to reassemble the pack, such as after a chase, or if wolf pack member has gotten lost. A wolf pack is structured much like our own human families with wolf parents, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. There are even baby sitters to take care of the young pups when the rest of the pack is off on an adventure. When wolves return from a hunt, those who stayed behind will rush to greet them and howling may break out as well. Additionally, wolves will sometimes howl after a chase to celebrate a successful hunt.  Wolves have been documented howling to warn wolves in nearby territories. A wolf may also howl to indicate a sense of loneliness and despair and much like us may howl as an expression of happiness and joy. Perhaps wolf joy is never more clearly demonstrated than when a new litter of pups is welcomed to the pack. The adult wolves simply are ecstatic and demonstrate their happiness with rich, vibrant songs and games of joy. With so many similarities to our own family lives, it remains a very sad fact that very few animals have suffered more at the hands of mankind than has the wolf. In the United States we once had an actual federal governmental policy that called for the eradication of all wolves from the lower 48 states in the early twentieth century. Tragically, though the federal government has changed its policy towards wolves—they are  protected under the jurisdiction of the Endangered Species Act—the state of Alaska  still funds and practices airborne hunting of wolves. In this practice hunters chase wolves until exhaustion and then kill the wolf and claim their bounty from the Alaskan government.  

Last Updated: 3/1/17