De­cod­ing the lan­guage of wolves

Re­searchers are de­ci­pher­ing the way th­ese pack an­i­mals com­mu­ni­cate and it seems that fa­cial ex­pres­sions, rather than sounds or scents, hold the key

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS - WORDS: ROSIE MAL­LETT

Learn­ing to ‘speak’ ca­nine by study­ing the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of wolves.

Whether it’s gob­bling up Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood’s granny or blow­ing lit­tle pigs’ houses down, wolves are tra­di­tion­ally cast as vil­lains and por­trayed as schem­ing, vi­cious and men­ac­ing. Now, thanks to the lat­est re­search, this looks set to change. Wolves are get­ting an im­age makeover. New stud­ies are adding to a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence that paints a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture of th­ese an­i­mals and gives an in­trigu­ing in­sight into a so­phis­ti­cated so­cial struc­ture cen­tred around wolf fam­ily life. At the root of this is a com­plex level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion built partly on fa­cial ex­pres­sions that re­flect a wolf’s feel­ings. In ef­fect, wolves ‘talk’ by mak­ing faces at each other.

Re­searchers be­lieve wolves may have used th­ese com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills to build bridges with hunter-gath­erer peo­ple in an evo­lu­tion­ary jour­ney that ul­ti­mately led to the do­mes­tic dogs we know and love to­day. In the first of its kind, re­search at Durham Univer­sity is start­ing to trans­late this wolf talk and looks set to de­liver im­por­tant lessons about how we in­ter­act with our dogs at home and some dis­turb­ing news about our de­signer dog breeds.

“Most peo­ple think of wolves as nasty snarling crea­tures al­ways ready to pounce on us. But this is non­sense,” says Elana Hobkirk of Durham Univer­sity’s an­i­mal be­hav­iour re­search group. “They are, in fact, sen­tient an­i­mals, ca­pa­ble of joy and friend­li­ness as well as anger.”

Hobkirk has looked at how wolves be­have to­wards each other within the pack by iden­ti­fy­ing their fa­cial ex­pres­sions and de­ter­min­ing whether they re­flect the an­i­mals’ un­der­ly­ing emo­tions. She has com­pared the re­sults with those from dogs to see whether the do­mes­ti­cated cousins can pro­duce the same range of sig­nals.

This means get­ting up close and per­sonal with wolves, which can be a prob­lem. A wild wolf will flee as soon as it catches scent of a hu­man, which means you’ll be lucky to get within two miles of it, says Hobkirk. So, to get a good look at her sub­jects she has fo­cused on cap­tive wolves liv­ing in four packs at the UK Wolf Con­ser­va­tion Trust near Read­ing.

“The more subor­di­nate mem­bers of the pack are more elab­o­rate in their fa­cial ex­pres­sions”


“Although fa­cial ex­pres­sions have long been ob­served in wolves and dogs, this is the first time they’ve been quan­ti­fied and cor­re­lated with their cor­re­spond­ing af­fec­tive states [forms of mo­ti­va­tion such as emo­tions, moods, at­ti­tudes, de­sires, pref­er­ences, in­ten­tions and dis­likes]. Un­til now re­searchers haven’t had the means to do it,” Hobkirk says.

The tech­nique in­volves film­ing the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of the wolves while they in­ter­act. The footage is then played back in slow mo­tion so that their fa­cial move­ments can be en­tered into a com­puter pro­gramme.

Each in­di­vid­ual fa­cial move­ment is al­lo­cated a spe­cific code from the Dog Fa­cial Ac­tion Cod­ing Sys­tem (DogFACS), a tool de­vel­oped for use in dogs by Portsmouth Univer­sity. It recog­nises each move­ment based on the un­der­ly­ing fa­cial mus­cu­la­ture that moves spe­cific land­marks on the wolf’s/dog’s face such as eyes, ears, browridge, muz­zle, nose and mouth.

The re­sults are then cor­re­lated with the so­cial con­text of the in­ter­ac­tion to iden­tify the emo­tions or af­fec­tive states be­ing ex­pressed by the an­i­mal, us­ing body lan­guage and out­comes of in­ter­ac­tions as guides. “For ex­am­ple, if one wolf snaps at an­other, and the other wolf sud­denly backs away, puts its ears back flat, low­ers its head and shows the whites of its eyes, then that re­ac­tion is la­belled as ‘fear’,” ex­plains Hobkirk. So far the re­search has re­vealed that wolves can ex­press at least nine emo­tions through their faces: anger, anx­i­ety, cu­rios­ity, fear,

friend­li­ness, hap­pi­ness, in­ter­est, joy and sur­prise (See ‘The Nine Faces of the Wolf’, p58).

Along with other ways of mes­sag­ing, such as body pos­ture and vo­cal­i­sa­tions, the wolves use th­ese fa­cial ex­pres­sions to build bonds be­tween in­di­vid­u­als and main­tain their hi­er­ar­chy within the pack. Apart from a few mi­nor vari­a­tions – one wolf might wrin­kle its nose more than an­other, for ex­am­ple – th­ese ex­pres­sions are con­sis­tent across all the packs Hobkirk has stud­ied. And it seems some wolves are more chatty than oth­ers.

“The more subor­di­nate mem­bers of the pack are more elab­o­rate in their fa­cial ex­pres­sions whereas the more dom­i­nant mem­bers don’t have to make much ef­fort to get the mes­sage across. They can just stand there and show who’s boss,” says Hobkirk.

One find­ing that has stood out from the re­search is a re­mark­able sim­i­lar­ity with cer­tain in­ter­ac­tions used by pri­mates in sim­i­lar so­cial set­tings. Th­ese in­clude the ‘jaw-drop’, in which a wolf or pri­mate re­laxes their lower jaw and pulls back the cor­ners of their lips so it looks like they’re grin­ning with­out show­ing their teeth. It’s an ex­pres­sion both species use to sig­nal play­time and, in wolves, is dif­fer­ent to the sub­mis­sive grin, seen in ex­pres­sions of ‘friend­li­ness’, where the mouth is shut.

It’s th­ese sim­i­lar­i­ties with pri­mate ex­pres­sions that have led the Durham group to the the­ory that wolves’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills may have played a key role in their do­mes­ti­ca­tion. Stone-age peo­ple and wolves could per­haps ‘talk’ to each other by us­ing fa­cial ex­pres­sions.

Thou­sands of years ago, hu­man and wolves may have formed al­liances partly be­cause they could in­ter­act through a range of sig­nals, which we can still see to­day, al­beit in a di­min­ished from, in our do­mes­tic dogs. It seems ob­vi­ous when you think about how much we rely on peo­ple’s ex­pres­sions to pick up on their mean­ing.

“It’s nat­u­ral for us to hone in on peo­ple’s faces when we’re talk­ing. Re­search shows that peo­ple who have had a stroke and can’t use their fa­cial ex­pres­sions as they did be­fore, find it dif­fi­cult to main­tain re­la­tion­ships. As wolves also use fa­cial ex­pres­sions to com­mu­ni­cate, then maybe mil­len­nia ago we were able to pick up on that and un­der­stand each other,” says Hobkirk.

Do­mes­ti­ca­tion is thought to have started at least 15,000 years ago. It’s pos­si­ble hu­man chil­dren may have taken a fancy to wolf pups and stolen them from dens, although some con­sider this un­likely given the time re­quired to hand-rear wolf pups. Al­ter­na­tively, wolves may have learnt that hang­ing around peo­ple was a handy way of scav­eng­ing food. In the process the hu­mans gained ex­tra pro­tec­tion from th­ese an­i­mal al­lies who would alert them to dan­ger­ous in­trud­ers.

What­ever hap­pened to bring the two species to­gether, an al­liance be­tween hu­man and wolf would have had ben­e­fits for both, ac­cord­ing to Dr Sean Twiss, who heads the Durham Univer­sity an­i­mal be­hav­iour group.

“The ac­cepted wis­dom is that there was a mu­tual re­la­tion­ship be­tween wolves and hu­mans,” he 2

2 says. “To en­able that you need com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so a va­ri­ety of sig­nals that ef­fec­tively con­vey the wolf’s af­fec­tive state to a hu­man would be in its best in­ter­est if it is to get an ad­van­tage out of the as­so­ci­a­tion.” This could have served as a se­lec­tion pres­sure as the two species co-evolved.

“Wolves share food and co­op­er­ate, whereas dogs don’t want to share, or rec­on­cile af­ter a con­flict”


So, af­ter mil­len­nia of liv­ing to­gether, you might ex­pect us to be con­vers­ing hap­pily with our ca­nine friends. We know dogs are good at read­ing their own­ers’ faces and feel­ings. But it turns out that ‘man’s best friend’ is some­what chal­lenged when it comes to con­vey­ing emo­tions, at least via fa­cial sig­nalling. In her re­search, Hobkirk found only three con­sis­tent emo­tional states were de­tected in dogs by her model: anger, friend­li­ness and joy.

The prob­lem is dogs don’t have the fa­cial struc­ture to pull faces to the same ex­tent as wolves. Think of a pug – its flat face is a hand­i­cap when it comes to com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

“Dogs have more of a brachy­cephalic [shorter, flat­ter] face; long, flopped ears; long, pen­du­lous lips; and a kind of weird hairdo that can hide their ears and eyes,” ex­plains Hobkirk. “Th­ese are all fea­tures that can hin­der com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In breed­ing for looks, we’ve got rid of the more nat­u­ral mor­phol­ogy that the dog needs.”

The prob­lem may have started way back in the his­tory of do­mes­ti­ca­tion. Pre­vi­ous re­search from Portsmouth Univer­sity sug­gested that wolves with more puppy-like fea­tures may have been pref­er­en­tially se­lected by peo­ple – and that this se­lec­tion may con­tinue to­day. But it seems we’ve gone too far and this has im­pli­ca­tions, not only for hu­man/dog re­la­tion­ships but also for in­ter­ac­tions be­tween dogs. Some may strug­gle with the ‘lan­guage bar­rier’ and this may ex­plain why cer­tain breeds are more ag­gres­sive than oth­ers.

The Durham re­search also found do­mes­ti­cated dogs are twice as vo­cal as wolves – bark­ing, yelp­ing, whim­per­ing, and growl­ing. The ex­tra noise could be to com­pen­sate for the lack of more sub­tle forms of fa­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion – equiv­a­lent to the stereo­typ­i­cal English­man abroad who shouts louder in his own lan­guage to try and be un­der­stood.

Wolves’ su­pe­rior com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills have also been ob­served at the Wolf Sci­ence Cen­tre in Vi­enna, Aus­tria. Here, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Friederike Range of the Kon­rad Lorenz In­sti­tute of Ethol­ogy and col­leagues are study­ing the cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties of wolves and free-rang­ing wild dogs liv­ing in packs.

“Wolves are very so­cial and dogs are not,” she says. “Wolves share food and co­op­er­ate, whereas the dogs don’t want to share, and they don’t rec­on­cile af­ter a con­flict. The dif­fer­ence in com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the wolves and dogs is strik­ing.”

Wolves may also be more per­cep­tive than pet dogs. In a re­cent study, the Vi­en­nese sci­en­tists found that dogs and wolves were both ca­pa­ble of find­ing a morsel of food if a re­searcher pointed to where it was hid­den. But if the re­searcher just looked at the hid­ing place, only the wolves were able to fol­low their gaze to dis­cover the food, ex­plains Range. Dogs may be good at fol­low­ing com­mands, in­clud­ing point­ing, but wolves pay more at­ten­tion to faces and fa­cial ex­pres­sions.

Such abil­i­ties are doubt­less what have earned the wolf its rep­u­ta­tion for cun­ning. But it is the an­i­mals’ im­pulse to live in packs and work to­gether to sup­port and pro­tect each other that draws com­par­isons with hu­man so­ci­ety. Wolves have a sim­i­lar so­cial struc­ture to hu­man hunter­gath­er­ers, liv­ing in fam­ily groups and co­op­er­at­ing to hunt for food and pro­vide for their young. A wolf pack is sim­ply a fam­ily and can be as small as a pair of wolves but usu­ally com­prises the par­ents, the cur­rent year’s offspring and those from the pre­vi­ous one to two years. A typ­i­cal pack has about 10 mem­bers, although one pack in the USA’s Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park, where wolves were rein­tro­duced in 1995, reached 37 mem­bers of ex­tended fam­ily.

Be­ing in a pack re­quires a hi­er­ar­chy in which each wolf knows its place. But ag­gres­sion within a pack is usu­ally only a small part of a wolf’s life. Far more time is spent play­ing, says Rick McIn­tyre who dur­ing his 40 years in the US Na­tional Park Ser­vice, spent over a decade as the bi­o­log­i­cal tech­ni­cian for the Yel­low­stone Wolf Project.

“Wolves are very af­fec­tion­ate to each other – lick­ing their faces, play-wrestling, jump­ing up against each other, putting a paw over the shoul­der of a com­pan­ion,” he says and goes on to point out that one dom­i­nant male would even pre­tend to lose at play-fights.

“The big­gest and tough­est male in the park would have a tus­sle with a smaller adult or a pup and would run off pre­tend­ing to be afraid. It would be like a hu­man fa­ther play­fully wrestling with his son and let­ting the boy win,” he says. “It’s a good way to bond and build a strong re­la­tion­ship with each other.”

Mean­while, back in Durham the next stages of the re­search will look at the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween peo­ple and dogs. This could lead to a guide­book for how to talk to your dog with breed-spe­cific cue cards in­cluded when you buy a dog. For ex­am­ple, if your pug is try­ing to con­vey anger or fear, it may use dif­fer­ent sig­nals to those of a Labrador or a Ger­man shep­herd. Re­gard­less, it seems that the best way to un­der­stand what your dog is try­ing to say is to learn to recog­nise the faces it’s pulling.


LEFT: Big, bad wolves are renowned in folk­lore for caus­ing trou­ble for char­ac­ters like Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood, Peter and the three lit­tle pigs

ABOVE: Wolves’ faces are typ­i­cally longer than those of do­mes­ti­cated dogs, which makes it eas­ier to dis­cern their fa­cial ex­pres­sions

ABOVE: A male Arc­tic wolf greets Elana Hobkirk of Durham Univer­sity’s an­i­mal be­hav­iour re­search team

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