How Do Wolves Communicate?


After hearing wolves in the surrounding area recently, I wondered what they were trying to communicate, and if they use any other types of communication apart from sound.

Wolves communicate to members of their pack or another pack using vocalizations such as growls, barks, yips, and howls.  Wolves also communicate using body language to show dominance and subordination in packs. Scat and urine are used to show others their territory.

There is only one species of wolf in North America, the gray wolf. Wolves, like other animals, use vocalizations in many ways to communicate with their packs and others.  They also use their sense of smell to communicate. Dogs use some of the same communication methods as the wolf 

Below is more detailed information on how the wolves interact with each other to attain different goals.

What are the different types of language used by wolves?

Wolves use three different ways to communicate with other wolves, either in their packs or in neighboring packs. 

These languages can be classified as follows:

  • Use of sound which includes howls, barks, whimpers, and growls
  • Use of unique scents which include scats, urine, and pheromones   
  • Use of body language such as body positions and movements and facial expressions.

Vocalization

Wolves howl mostly during the night, not to the moon as previously thought, but to communicate with other wolves. 

Wolves can mainly be heard in the evening when the wind is calm. This time is when they are most active. The wolves use their vocalizations such as whimpering, growling, or even barking while at other times they combine sounds into one such as the bark-howl.

Barking 

Barking is often used as a warning against any sort of danger like the presence of a predator. When the wolves use the bark-howl vocalization, this often shows aggression in defense of their territories.

Whimpering 

Whimpering is often a good sound, with the pups using it to get their mother to nurse them. Wolves may also whimper to show a sign of surrender over the other dominant wolves who are in a more dominant position, such as the alpha wolves.

Growling 

Growling is very similar to barking.  This works in the same manner as barking as it is used to also warn about predators.  The growl can also be used to indicate some dominance in the territory.

Howling

This is the most common sound used by wolves, primarily when the communication is intended to travel longer distances. Howling can be made due to different circumstances.

A defensive howl is often used to warn wolves to stay in their packs and protect their young ones. A social howl, on the other hand, is used to gather the wolves to spend time together.

Want to know more about why wolves howl? Find out in an article I have written here.

Body Language

A lot of information is conveyed by the wolves through the use of their bodies. When a wolf sticks their ears straight out and bares their teeth, this is a sign of anger and a feeling of being agitated. 

In case of any suspicions, wolves will pull back their ears and squint to be alert danger or predators.

If you would like to know what types of wolves are in North America, I have written an article you may find useful. You can find it here.

A fearful wolf can be seen with their ears flat against the head. Wolves love to play with their fellow mammals, and this is communicated when they dance and bow playfully.

Scent

Wolves are blessed with an excellent sense of smell, almost a hundred times better than humans.

This sense of smell is used in a variety of ways to help them communicate. Wolves live in packs well known by them, and the scent helps them to recognize others in the pack.

Urine and scat

Wolves use urine and scat to mark their territories, in a process known as scent-marking.  Scent-marking is usually to maintain their packs and avoid intruders from other wolf packs.

Wolves from different packs are expected not to enter the territory if the urine scent does not smell familiar with that of their pack. Packs from the same territory can smell the scent and recognize it.

A wolf pack’s territory is dotted with olfactory hot spots. Consequently, any wolf is assured that it is in its territory or knows when it’s about to leave it. Similarly, any wolf from a different territory knows when its trespassing and will do its best to avoid it to maintain a peaceful coexistence. 

The dominant animals often scent-mark almost every two minutes. They do this by raising their leg in a dominant posture which utilizes multiple forms of communication. This is usually called “a raised leg urination.”

Wolves also use urine to scent-mark food caches that have already been exhausted to help save time.  By using the scent, they will not get tired while digging up an already exhausted area. 

Wolves also scent mark using their feces. They have complex scent glands just inside their anus. When the anus releases scat, secretions pass out and coat each side of the scat.

For a complete guide to the gray wolf, I have written an article which you can find here.

Pheromones

Pheromones are chemical messages between members of the same species that help them communicate. Pheromones in wolves are easily located in glands in the toes, tails, eyes, anus, skin, and genitalia.

A male wolf is able to identify a female in estrus by identifying pheromones in her urine.  It is during this time when the two mates attempt copulation.

Communication of dominance

Any wolf, either male or a female, can become dominant. The wolf needs to find an unoccupied territory and also a mate. 

Wolves’ stays in packs and one dominant may decide to move in their packs without a mate. As they move, the dominant wolf ends up killing an alpha wolf from another pack and of the same gender and usurps its mate. The dominant wolf has both the territory and also a mate.

The alpha wolf is in charge of their packs. They exhibit dominance by holding their tails high and standing tall. The less dominant wolves have to display their submissiveness by holding their tails down and often lowering their bodies while pawing at the higher-ranking wolves.

Submissiveness can be portrayed in two ways; active and passive. In active submission, signs of inferiority are portrayed such as crouching, muzzle licking, and tail tucking. 

This contact is also portrayed by the pups. This allows them to get the adults to regurgitate their food.  The same behaviors are later characterized in adulthood to show intimacy and differentiation of roles of the wolves involved.

Passive submission is portrayed by subordinate wolves when they lay on their back or side, thus exposing their vulnerable chest and abdomen to the more dominant wolf. 

If the two wolves disagree, they show their teeth and growl at each other.

Wolves show acceptance of authority by rolling over on its back. Reactions to this behavior may range from tolerance to fatal attack, especially in cases of an outside wolf trespassing. 

Obedience to dominance rules keeps the wolves in a pack from fighting among themselves and hurting each other.

Different body parts behavior to portray various expressions

Annoyance on the part of the older male is revealed by:

  • Partial erection of its tail  
  • Raising of his hackles
  • Forward movement of ears
  • Vertical retraction of lips 

The subordinate female indicates her acquiescence by:

  • Flattening of her ears
  • Flashing of her white eyes
  • Appeasement mouth gesture (licking intensely) 
  • General lowering of her body 
  • Raising of their paws

A wolf’s tail and face are the most important body parts in the use of language during communication.

Many times wolves act in defense when in contact with humans. Humans need to portray some behavior so as not to irritate the wolves.

How To Avoid An Attack From A Wolf

  • Retreat slowly while facing a wolf and act aggressively, maintaining eye contact if possible
  • If in a crowd of people and there is more than one wolf, retreat slowly and try to move away from them
  • Attract any sort of noise by using anything at your disposal, clap, cheer, or shout
  • Use walking poles or sticks aggressively to avoid the wolves from coming closer
  • Climb trees as a defense as the wolves cannot climb trees

Defensive threat

This is a condition where the wolves communicate with each other by crouching their bodies.  This helps them to get ready for any possible attacks from a rival.  The wolf assumes an ambivalent facial expression to stare down an opponent.

Flagging

Flagging usually happens when the bitch wolves enter estrus and are ready to mate. They position their rump before their potential mate.  They lift their tail up and to the side, offering themselves to be licked and sniffed. They do this while gazing back at the mate in a relaxed demeanor indicating their willingness to accept their attention

The male wolf also may flag. They do this to present themselves to another wolf to sniff their anal scent glands during greetings or specific displays of dominance. 

Hunting and Stalking

When wolves approach their prey, they tend to surprise them by looking small or crouching their bodies below the grass level.  This posture also has the advantage of giving them a defensive posture as they approach their potential opponent. 

Running in fear

When the wolf is afraid, they may run to escape. Lowering their heads, they tuck their tails and lay their ears back. The change in their body posture acts as a warning to the pack.  When they see these signs, they know they have to find safety.

In conclusion, wolves are protective of each other and also one of the most social mammals.  They love to play and live together in packs well known by them. This is all achieved by their strong skills to communicate in the manner of vocalizations, scents, and body language.

If you would like more information about wolves, I have compiled 101 facts, which you can find here.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

Recent Content