Wolves Don’t Really Howl at the Moon

Slate’s animal blog.
April 14 2014 10:08 AM

Why Do Wolves Howl?

478405249-young-male-wolf-one-of-five-that-has-recently-arrived
Sometimes wolves howl when they wake up in the morning, just because.

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish’s three-second memory or a dog’s color-blindness (both also myths). There are countless depictions of moon howling in faux Native American tchotchkes; the scene also appears in Jack London novels and at least one Los Angeles piano bar. This curious fiction has become so quotidian that even The New Yorker’s legendary fact checkers let “a long, lamenting howl at the orange moon” slide into print without a second thought.

The truth is that wolves—the real-life, Canis lupus variety—don’t howl at the moon. Scientists have found no correlation between the canine and Earth’s satellite, except perhaps an increase in overall activity on brighter nights. So how did the idea gain such traction, and what do wolves howl at?

Advertisement

“There has been more speculation about the nature and function of the wolf’s howl than the music, probably, of any other animal,” writes Barry Lopez in his extraordinary book Of Wolves and Men. Hearing a howl in the wild—or howls, because wolves harmonize with one another—is a startling experience. Howling rises and falls in pitch, skirting the edges of human music like a men’s choir fed through a synthesizer. Because the sound is both familiar and alien, it seems uncanny—attractive and repulsive at the same time. If animal noises are “music,” as Lopez suggests, then wolves are the Angelo Badalamenti of the animal kingdom. The howl seems engineered to give you the creeps.

Biologists have identified a surprisingly wide range of possible functions: Wolves howl to assemble their pack, attract a mate, mark territory, scare off enemies, signal alarm, or communicate their position. Sometimes they howl when they wake up in the morning, like humans yawning during a stretch. It’s even been suggested that wolves howl to confuse enemies and prey. Traveling on horseback in Texas, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant once heard howling and figured there were 20 wolves; it turned out there were only two. “Seated upon their haunches, with their mouths close together, they had made all the noise we had been hearing for the past 10 minutes,” he wrote in his memoir.

But even more interesting, I think, are the emotional rationales that have been put forth for howling—that it expresses restlessness, anxiety, stress, frustration, loneliness, and excitement. The more I learn about wolves, the more complex and human-like they seem to become (or, conversely, the more wolf-like we become). Recent research has found that wolves howl most frequently to the members of their packs they spend the most time with. That sounds an awful lot like best friends chatting about their day.

This is an eclectic list of functions (and it doesn’t even include my favorite: because they like to howl), but in no case is the moon involved as a motivating factor. So, again, where does the myth come from? Lopez offers a compelling theory here: “Howling reaches a seasonal peak in the winter months, during the time of courtship and breeding; it is easy to see how the idea that wolves howl at the moon might have gained credence and played well on the imagination during these cold, clear nights when the sound carried far and a full moon lent an eerie aspect to a snowscape.” This reminds me of the “wolf moon” of January, a name given to the full moon supposedly, and perhaps apocryphally, because of the hungry packs that once gathered outside Native American villages.

171632369-stone-plate-of-romes-founders-romulus-and-remus-suckled
Wolves didn't found ancient Rome, either.

Photo by NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

But the association of wolves with the moon has developed over centuries and in many other parts of the world. In Norse mythology, the descendants of Loki (the trickster god of Thor fame) were wolves prophesied to eventually devour the moon and sun. Even earlier, in Roman antiquity, Pliny the Elder recorded a skeptical account of lycanthropy in his Natural History. Perhaps because the wolf has spent so long being framed as something demonic and evil, and with evil indelibly linked to the night, flights of association have hardened into truism. Gothic fiction certainly kicked things along a bit. It’s really no wonder we’re confused today.

Nevertheless, knowing the truth doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate the fun of an image so loaded with romantic symbolism it can cause a terrible T-shirt to become a viral sensation. Our understanding of wolves has always blended biology with human projection. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf."

Lance Richardson is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM Tracking Down the Mysterious Typeface of Savannah, Georgia
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 1:38 PM Why Is Fall Red in America but Yellow in Europe? A possible explanation, 35 million years in the making.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.