The Songs of the Wolves

September 12, 2016

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 communicating in a single stream of information from caller to listener. Until modern recording technology was invented, any acoustic communication lasted only as long as the echo. So while we can hear difference in modern human speech, with more than 6,000 extant languages and an unknowable number of local accents for each language, we can’t trace the origin of language from before writing or know how ancient peoples would have sounded. Before 1860, when de Martinville made the first acoustic recording, the world of speech must remain silent to us, though we can sometimes hear scattered fragments of dead languages still alive in our own.

The question of when and how language first emerged is the topic of tremendous controversy – it has even been called ‘the hardest question in science’. My work is on what information can be extracted from vocalisations. It is a first step in understanding where the physical body dictates the shape and form of the call, and where the caller has control. For example, a piano player is limited to combinations of a piano’s 88 keys, but a song played on a Steinway will have different sound qualities to the same song on a bar’s upright. In addition, different tunes can also be played. Separating the characteristics of the instrument from the choices of the player is essential before we can understand what meaning those choices might convey.

Behaviour is not purely instinctual, bred in the bone and performed from birth without thought or flexibility. It is often learned socially. Chimpanzees are a fascinating example: their use of tools spreads from one individual to another as they copy the successful tactics of their troop-mates in breaking apart nuts, catching ants or cleaning their teeth. They’re shown to prefer cooked food over raw, and are even able to learn US sign language.

All this has increased interest in how other species develop shared cultures and knowledge. Whether it’s tool use in birds, farming by ants, or dancing in parrots, activities that were previously believed to be specific to humans are now being found in a variety of species. This means that animals can be used as a model for humans, allowing us a window into an otherwise cryptic part of our own evolution.

Perhaps the most fascinating area of this research is the evolution of language and speech. It was once believed that only humans used language and that animal sounds were nothing more than instinctive responses to behavioural cues, such as cries of pain. Now we know that many species have flexibility in their vocal production, allowing them to choose when to call and what sound to make. Researchers have found that monkeys use different calls for different predators, and that prairie dogs can encode the colour and shape of an approaching predator in their alarm calls.

Songbirds display particularly complex rules to the order of their singing notes. The hope is that studying animal calls will shed light on the way human speech developed. It’s a step toward solving the hardest question in science.

Dialects, or regional differences in the form and use of vocalisations, have been observed in birds, bats, chimpanzees and now an increasingly long list of other species. This has been most beautifully heard in whales, where the songs of humpbacks are transmitted across hundreds of miles, telling a listener which part of the ocean the whale lives in, and tracing its family group by the influences on song formations.

The bioacousticians Katharine Payne and Roger Payne first listened to the whales on underwater microphone recordings in the 1960s, and used musical notation to explore the changes that occurred in each male’s song, year on year. Whalesong, heard by humans as long ago as Aristotle, became the subject of intense study and public interest.

Their research showed that there were geographic differences in humpback whale songs and that we could tell apart populations just by using those songs, which change throughout their lives. So the whales were controlling their singing and subject to cultural influences. The Paynes had found dialects in whale song. Would we find the same for canids?

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