Wolves’ Calls Provide Clues to Birth of Human Speech
Wolves’ howls are eerie, beautiful and wild. But what are they actually saying to each other?
As the heroes fled the dark castle for the darker woods, Count Dracula’s ‘children of the night’ began to make their ‘music’: a distant chorus of lupine howls, echoing through the Transylvanian night. I paused the movie. ‘That’s not a European wolf, the howl’s all wrong!’ I told my long-suffering companion. ‘That wolf belongs in the backwoods of California!’
After hundreds of hours listening to thousands of wolves for my PhD, the difference between howls was obvious. The voice of a Russian wolf was nothing like that of a Canadian, and a jackal was so utterly different again that it was like listening to Farsi and French. I believed that there must be geographic and subspecies distinctions. Other researchers had made this proposition before, but no one had put together a large enough collection of howls to test it properly. A few years later, my degree finished, I told my Dracula story to the zoologist Arik Kershenbaum at the University of Cambridge. He promptly suggested we explore how attuned to wolves I really am. Are there differences between canid species and subspecies and, if so, could these reflect diverging cultures?
When animals call to each other, they are communica/.../