Weird Animal Question of the Week

Calls of the Wild—Why Do Animals (Including Your Dog) Howl?

Some canines, monkeys, and yes, even mice communicate and defend their territories by howling, experts say.

 

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A gray wolf (Canis lupus) in Montana howls, exciting her pup.


When someone asked me recently "Why do wolves howl?" my first thought was, "Wouldn't you, if you could?"  

As far as calls of the wild go, howling is among the most mesmerizing—but not many animals do it. For this Saturday's Weird Animal Question of the Week, we thought we'd listen in to the howling creatures of the world.

The most famous howler is probably the wolf. These predators also have a method to their melody—there are three reasons wolves howl, according to Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (See "Wolves Identified by Unique Howls, May Help Rare Species.")

One is "to communicate to other wolves that this is their territory, or stay away," he says via email. Wolves also howl to find fellow pack members when they're apart—gray wolf howls can carry for miles—and for social purposes, such as maintaining relationships within members of the pack.

Howling also has a "strong seasonal component," Smith says. "Interestingly, during the denning season, howling drops to almost zero."

That's because wolf packs raising pups want to avoid giving the den's location away to other animals—and possibly putting themselves at risk.

All in the (Canine) Family

Others animals in the Canidae family howl, including jackals (listen), coyotes, and man's best friend.

Jackals, all three species of which are native to Africa, howl "to repel intruders and attract family members," Craig Sholley, of the African Wildlife Foundation, says via email.

A chorus of howls "is thought to reinforce family bonds, as well as establish territorial status," he says.

Most domestic dogs don't make true howls, which are defined as a sustained, long-range call, says Barbara Sherman, a veterinary behaviorist at North Carolina State University.

However, many dogs produce attention-seeking vocalizations that owners call "talking" or "howling," and which varies by breed and individual, Sherman says. (See an adorable YouTube video of puppies learning to howl.)

For instance, Sherman’s own terrier will sometimes make a howling sound when he is aroused and wants to interact with her.

Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies—which are closely related to wolves—and some hounds are known howlers.

Basenjis, Sherman says, "produce sounds described as a 'yodel' or howl." Basset hounds and beagles sometimes "bay," and while greyhounds typically don't bark or howl, they'll "produce a vocalization sometimes called a 'roo.'"

Dogs can also howl when they hear a siren or another alarming noise, to attract attention, or as a reaction to separation anxiety, according to the ASPCA.

Mighty Mouse

You don't have to be top dog to have a big voice.

Grasshopper mice are awfully cute, but they're also Tarantino-grade cool. These nocturnal mice of North and Central America let everyone know where their turf is by raising their head and howling like a wolf. A  teeny, tiny wolf (listen).

They're also able to eat venomous scorpions because their bodies turn the scorpion venom into a painkiller.

All the good superpowers are now officially taken.

Monkey Business

All species of howler monkeys howl, especially males: Their hyoid bone, "which serves as a resonating chamber," is larger than those in females. Even so, some female howler monkeys howl, too.

in the morning, these mouthy monkeys howl to possibly signal their location to neighboring groups, Paul Garber, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, says via email.

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A mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) feeds in Guanacaste National Park, Costa Rica.

 

The tree dwellers may also howl during the day to update earlier information or to make themselves threatening to intruders, including males trying to enter an established group. They also sometimes howl when they encounter a disturbance, like a falling tree. (Watch a video of howler monkeys in their native habitat.)

Worst. Neighbors. Ever.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or write me on Facebook.

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