Wolves: the power of the pack

The sound of a howling wolf is ingrained in pop culture. It adds tension to almost any scene, even if you never actually catch a glimpse of the creature creating the sound. It’s not surprising that a well-placed howl can cause anxiety, considering that wolves have a dangerous reputation. A reputation which appears well founded as there have been at least 14 wolf attacks this year alone, injuring almost 30 people.

What could be scarier than running into a wolf on a dark night? Perhaps running into a pack of wolves? Especially when we consider that your average wolf is adept at working in a group to solve tasks and cooperating to hunt down their unsuspecting victims. Not forgetting that they are also intelligent hunters, putting domestic doge to shame and making them appear positively stupid.

Recent research from the Wolf Science Centre in Vienna has shown that, when it comes to cooperation, domesticated dogs may be missing a trick while wolves take the prize. This might seem counterintuitive, especially when several domestication theories suggest that the tamer and more docile domestic dogs should possess characteristics which improve tolerance and cooperation. However, it was actually found that wolves were more tolerant than dogs raised in a similar environment, and were also more capable of completing a cooperative task.

To study cooperation these animals were given a test called the “loose-string paradigm.” This test relied on a piece of apparatus consisting of a length of rope attached to a small board with a reward on. Both ends of the rope are exposed and, in order to obtain the reward, both ends must be pulled simultaneously. If only one side is pulled, the other end becomes inaccessible, and the reward does not move. The ends are at such a distance that one animal cannot pull them both, so two animals must cooperate to get the reward. This is a widely used experimental technique, which has been carried out with a wide range of animals, from shrews to elephants. Even the handsome little quokka got in on the act.

When first presented with this task, pairs of wolves performed better than dogs. In fact, after practicing, wolves were significantly better at the task than their domestic counterparts. Wolves actually beat dogs on many elements of this test. Firstly, unlike dogs, only one wolf needed to have been exposed to the task equipment for a pair of wolves to perform better. Secondly, dogs were also less likely to interact with the task, while wolves performed a wide array of “non-functional” interactions, when first introduced to the test equipment i.e. biting, pawing or scratching. It appeared that the wolves were more curious and subsequently learned how to carry out the task more successfully.

To further test the wolves’ cooperation, a modified version of the loose-string paradigm was introduced. Two sets of test equipment were set up in the same enclosure. In order to complete the task animals had to both pull strings on the same apparatus, ignoring the other equipment. As you can imagine, the rate of success on this variant of the test relied upon compatibility between the animals. Researchers found that animals who showed more affection with each other i.e. behaviour such as grooming, body contact and even tail wagging, were better at completing the task. So, the greater the affection between the wolves, the more likely they were to succeed at the task.

It was expected that dogs would be more tolerant of each other, seeing as they are regularly kept together as pets but, repeatedly, the dogs shows more aggressive behaviour towards each other and less affection. In fact one pair of animals had to be physically split up; two dogs, Sahibu and Gombo, you guys are jerks. When the dogs weren’t fighting, they routinely exhibited a simple conflict-avoidance strategy, by not taking part. They were less likely to interact with one another or the task. This obviously led to a decreased rate of success in the dog pairs – as I’m sure you know, ignoring your problems doesn’t help. Just like pretending you can’t hear the wolves scratching outside your door won’t stop them.

Moreover, wolf packs maintain a hierarchical social dynamic. Several behaviours have been documented as dominant or submissive. Whilst these behaviours were rare between all animals, they increased after animals were previously exposed to the apparatus. Once an animal knew how the equipment worked it was more likely to act dominant, particularly if the task wasn’t being completed. As we mentioned before, it only takes one wolf to have previously used the apparatus to increase the rate of success. Does this suggest that the dominant wolves were teaching others? Despite this horrifying theory, pairs of wolves who were closer in rank were more successful at completing the task. So, maybe you can sleep a bit better.

Finally, the task was altered to delay the entry of the second animal, leaving one wolf alone with the apparatus for 10 seconds. I don’t think I need to tell you what happened. One wolf waited patiently for the other, and the rate of success was similar to that in the other conditions. The rate of success was even higher in wolves which had previously carried out the task together. Not only are the wolves learning how the task works, they are remembering which other animals understand the task.

In the wild it is crucial that wolves work together. It’s been previously suggested that “wolves cooperate but dogs submit” and that is apparent in this study. As mentioned above similar ranked wolves work best together, whereas dogs either avoid the problem, or physically clash. Once the wolves understand the task, they are able to teach the tasks to others, and then remember which pack members understand the task.

It’s also interesting to note that only one animal was removed for not caring enough. I think by now you know that it was a dog; wolves don’t give up. Wolves learn, they test things out, work as a team and solve puzzles. Like the lock on your door, slinking into your room whilst you read some nonsense on the internet…

Post by: Dr Alex Ryan



3 thoughts on “Wolves: the power of the pack”

  1. The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it won’t fail me just as much as this one.
    After all, Yes, it was my choice to read through, but I actually thought you would probably have something useful to say.

    All I hear is a bunch of whining about something you could fix
    if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.

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