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The howling wolf

Can you speak wolf?

A British study has broken down wolf howls into 21 different dialect-like patterns.

The hierarchical organisation of a wolf pack is no longer a mystery to scientists. The way in which its members communicate, however, remains obscure to say the least.
Scientists from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge have therefore looked into the way in which canids ‘talk’.

They began by compiling a database of 6,000 different howls from wolves, wild dogs and jackals from India, Australia, Europe and the United States. The specimens studied lived either in the wild or in captivity. The researchers then reduced the number of howls to 2,000 before analysing them by computer.

« Rather than listening to the howls and thinking ‘This one sounds like this and that’, we wanted to get rid of any subjective analysis » lead study author Dr Arik Kershenbaum tells Motherboard. « So we used mathematical techniques, first to characterise these howls, and then to derive an accurate and objective mathematical representation of them.« 
By putting the algorithms through their paces, they were able to distinguish 21 different types of howl, depending on their tone and modulations. These twenty-one models are similar to ‘dialects’, specific to each species depending on the frequency used. For example, the red wolf has a higher-pitched, higher-pitched ‘voice’, while the grey wolf has a much lower-pitched howl.

The results of the study could lead to a better understanding of wolves and their movements, and be used to improve communication between farmers and animals.

Explaining human language development

The researchers are also talking about the possibility of using these results to study the development of language in humans, reports the Huffington Post. Studies on chimpanzees have been inconclusive due to their fairly simple calls, reports the Cambridge University website.

« Wolves are not close to us taxonomically [*], but from an ecological point of view their behaviour in a social structure is extremely close to ours. That’s why we domesticated dogs: they are very close to us« , explains Arik Kershenbaum.

Artificial intelligence translation of an original text by Slate
Click here to read the French version

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