Researchers in Austria discovered that wolves can gather information about food sources from observing humans, leading them to conclude that this innate behavior may have aided in their domestication to modern-day dogs. Previously, it was thought that dogs, the descendants of a now-extinct gray wolf population from Europe, were domesticated because they had superior ability to communicate with humans compared to other wolves. The research team of Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi wanted to ask whether this human-canine communication was something that the wolves learned over time, or whether it was a behavior naturally present in all wolves.
They designed an experiment, published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, to test the behavior of wolf and dog puppies who observed a treat being hidden in a field. The treat was hidden by either a human or an adult dog. Both the wolf and dog puppies could find the treat right away when they watched it being hidden, but the wolf puppies would only go retrieve the treat when it was hidden by a human. The researchers concluded that this was because the wolf puppies could tell that the adult dog did not enjoy the treat, a dead chick, and would sometimes spit it out before hiding it in the field. The ability of the wolf puppies to watch and learn from humans is therefore common among wolves, indicating that this behavior was likely present before wolves started on their path towards domestic dogs approximately 18,000 years ago.
According to the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN, wolves have a variety of communication methods and intricate social skills. Wolves communicate with each other through smells and scent marking, body language, and barking and howling. If you have ever observed a domestic dog, you may notice that some of these same traits are still present after domestication, but dogs have developed additional behaviors to be able to communicate with humans as well as other canines.
If you want to learn more about wolves, visit the International Wolf Center website, or stop in the next time you visit Ely. You can also donate a tax-deductible gift, goods, or services to help the center with their mission of promoting the survival of wolves through education.