Wolfie, wolfie, wolfie—here! According to a study that has consequences for both the tale of dog domestication and our larger knowledge of the natural world, wolves, like dogs, recognise and respond to the voices of familiar humans more than strangers.
According to Holly Root-Gutteridge of the University of Lincoln and co-author of the article that was published this week in Animal Cognition, there has long been theorised that dogs’ capacity to recognize human voices is a result of years of selective breeding.
Since obviously, no one has been breeding wolves to recognise human voices, we decided to look at wolves, she explained.
A total of 24 grey wolves, both male and female, between the ages of one and thirteen participated in Root Gutteridge and colleagues’ investigations, which were conducted in five zoos and wildlife parks throughout Spain.
The group set up speakers and initially played the animals recordings of a variety of strangers’ voices, which they would eventually “habituate” to—that is, grow tired of—because they determined it was not relevant to them.
Then they gave the wolves their keeper’s voice, who would speak to them in Spanish and ask them familiar questions like, “Hey, what’s up wolves?” or “Hello, little ones, good morning, how’s it going?”
The wolves turned to face the speaker, raised their heads, and made motions that any dog owner would recognise right away.
The researchers played the wolves recordings of strangers again to see whether they would still lose interest, proving that the effect wasn’t random.
The team finally changed things up and had the keepers utter a stream of strange phrases to ensure that the wolves truly understood the voices of their keepers rather than just knowing terms that the familiar people would regularly say to them.
The outcomes are still valid.
Being attentive to us
It’s been observed in dogs from the time of gramophones—as depicted in the well-known painting “His Master’s Voice“—to the present day’s video doorbells—that the wolves interacted with voices that were played through speakers, though it’s not yet known whether our dogs find this amusing or frustrating.
Regarding the implications, Root-Gutteridge noted that it was noteworthy that wolves could tell one human from another despite the fact that our species diverged from one another tens of millions of years ago.
The subject of how animals distinguish between the vocalisations of various species had received little research before to this. Although it was expected, research had demonstrated that gorillas, our near relatives, pay attention to humans.
In addition to being more afraid of the elephant-spearing Maasai than the agrarian Kamba, big-brained elephants have been found to discriminate the gender, age, and ethnicity of humans by their voices, attributing less threat value, for example, to women and children.
According to the latest discovery, “chances are, lots of species are listening to us and getting to know us as individuals,” Root-Gutteridge said.
She added that it’s not just about us. Dogs might be observing the neighbourhood cats and distinguishing between one meow and another, for instance.
If the talents are that universal, it suggests that animals may interact with other species much more frequently than previously imagined.