The Big Chill: Calming Signals Among Wolves

Part of the Young Naturalist Awards Curriculum Collection.

YNA 2000 WInners Hero
by Claire, Grade 8, Illinois - 2000 YNA WINNER

At age nine, I told my mother, "Mom, wolves are my favorite animal!" They have been my favorite ever since. Naturally, when my friend suggested I do a school science project on wolves, I was very enthusiastic.

Two wolves interacting with one another on grassy terrain.

I began my experiments in the fall of 1998. My first experiment introduced me to the complex social hierarchy of the wolf pack, including signs of dominance and subordination. The purpose of this experiment was to test if the social ranking of a pack could be determined based on the physical gestures and interactions of the wolves. To run my experiment, I researched life within a wolf pack and the physical signs used to show ranking. Signs of dominance include walking with raised tail and ears, standing over a subordinate animal, scent marking, and howling (Esker, 1998). Subordinate signals include an averted gaze, tucked tail, crouching, lowered ears, and lying on the back or side (Esker, 1998). I also studied the dominance hierarchy of the pack, which ranges from the alphas, or leaders, to the omega, or outcast. In between is the beta, mid-ranks, pups, and juveniles (Esker, 1998). Next, I observed the wolf pack at Peoria Wildlife Prairie Park over a period of two days. The pack consisted of nine non-breeding wolves ranging in age from nine to twelve years. All males had been neutered to prevent inbreeding and the resulting genetic abnormalities.

My 1998 experiment was successful. I determined the pack's ranking based on different dominant or subordinate postures. Thus, I concluded the pack's hierarchy could be determined by observing the physical actions of the animals (Esker, 1998). I decided to do a follow-up experiment this year.

For ideas on a follow-up, I contacted Pat Goodman at Wolf Park, Indiana. She suggested that I observe calming signals, special physical gestures used by canines to downplay aggression, fear, and stress within the pack (Goodman, 1999). Calming signals are vital to wolf interaction. "Predatory habits lead to strong emotion," (Steinhart, 1995, p. 24) and fighting within the pack is a dangerous activity. "It's unwise to let confrontation escalate further when the individual that could be hurt is a relative . . . whose help in the hunt is crucial for the health and survival of the entire pack." (Greeley, 1996, p. 93).

Calming signals can be classified into two categories, signals that have their origin in infantile behavior, known as redirected behavior patterns, and complete concealment of aggression (Abrantes, Dog Language, 1997). Examples of redirected behaviors are pawing, play position, and muzzle-nudging (Abrantes, Dog Language, 1997). Calming signals that rely on the concealment of aggression are turning the head, licking the nose or air, and walking in a curve (Rigaas, 1997).

I returned to Peoria to run my next experiment with the purpose of discovering whether subordinate wolves use calming signals more often than their dominant pack mates. Upon my return to the park, I learned that the pack's population had dropped to seven members. One wolf had died and another was removed for his protection. Once again, I observed the pack for two days, collecting instances of calming and ranking signaling. Following are my field journal, results, and graphs.

Two text boxes. One lists the identifying characteristsics of seven wolves. The other lists examples of calming behaviors.



OBSERVATIONS: Saturday, October 23, 1999

3:50 pm: Short Ears enters den. Subordinate wolves spend significant time in this area.

4:00 pm: Short Ears emerges. Walks in a curve toward unknown wolf. This is a calming signal. Canines will not usually approach another animal directly unless other clear signals have been employed (Rigaas, 1997). Appears nervous, tail lowered, a subordinate posture (Esker, 1998). Walks near fence, stops twice to look at observer.

Two wolves standing on green grass. The wolf named Light Cream holds its tail in dominant position. The wolf named Short Ears submits.

4:10 pm: Cream 2 gets up. Tail in high position, dominant posture (Esker, 1998).

4:15 pm: Light Cream approaches Den Wolf. Den Wolf lies on back, pawing Light Cream's muzzle. Pawing originated in movements pups use to stimulate milk production in the mother (Abrantes, Dog Language, 1997). This is a redirected behavior pattern.

4:20 pm: Daughter Wolf and Den Wolf approach each other. Daughter Wolf turns back to Den Wolf.

4:35 pm: Den Wolf joins Daughter Wolf and White Wolf at fence. Den Wolf muzzle-nudges Daughter Wolf. Muzzle-nudging is another redirected behavior. Pups use this behavior to encourage adults to regurgitate food for them (Abrantes, Dog Language, 1997). Den Wolf notices observer, sniffs ground, a form of aggression concealment (Rigaas, 1997).


OBSERVATIONS: Sunday, October 24, 1999

9:15 am: Wolves wake, stretch, sniff. Sniffing is a calming signal. During a stressful encounter, the wolf will hold his head to the ground until the situation passes (Rigaas, 1997).

9:20 am: Short Ears and Daughter Wolf sniff ground.

9:25 am: Den Wolf sniffs sleeping wolves in prairie. White Wolf approaches fence where observer is standing, looks, turns, walks away. White Wolf approaches Daughter Wolf, sniffs.

A bar chart showing calming behavior versus submissive or dominant behavior among the seven wolves.
Calming Behavior vs. Submissive/Dominant Behavior (Click to enlarge.)

White Wolf approaches fence. Turns side to observer, turns back. A wolf turns its entire body away to indicate its unwillingness to fight ("Learn about Wolves", 1999). Remains several minutes, licks air, a calming signal (Rigaas, 1997).

Walks away. Yawns. Yawning is one of the most common calming signals. Canines use it in hundreds of situations (Rigaas, 1997). White Wolf approaches Daughter Wolf, both wolves turn heads. Daughter Wolf stretches, White Wolf follows Daughter Wolf. Wolves muzzle-nudge. Daughter Wolf licks air. White Wolf, Daughter Wolf and Short Ears approach fence. Short Ears sniffs air. Short Ears yawns. All go to edge of fence area and muzzle-nudge. Light Cream joins. All walk toward observer in a curve, stop, heads turned, a sign concealing any aggressive appearance (Rigaas, 1997).

Short Ears yawns. All line up, begin to patrol perimeter of area. Cream 2 lies down with back to observer. Wolves appear to be with observer; indicating calming signals, head turning, yawning, and walking in a curve (Rigaas, 1997) toward observer.

9:40 am: Cream 2 approaches Daughter Wolf. Daughter Wolf turns back, sniffs ground.

9:45 am: Daughter Wolf approaches, Den Wolf sniffs. Cream 2 walks wide of Daughter Wolf. White Wolf raises leg, paws air. Daughter Wolf continues sniffing ground. No wolf is near.

9:50 am: Daughter Wolf sniffs White Wolf. White Wolf leaves. Daughter Wolf turns toward observer. Daughter Wolf walks away with open mouth. White Wolf approaches Den Wolf and Short Ears. Wolves turn heads away from each other. White Wolf approaches, Daughter Wolf turns head. White Wolf approaches observer, turns head to side and back. Short Ears walks to fence, licks air.

Two wolves behind a chainlink fence face each other while several feet apart. The wolf names Cream 2 yawns at Cream 1.

Daughter Wolf approaches fence, turns head. Den Wolf approaches fence, turns back to observer. Short Ears yawns as he passes observer. White Wolf and Den Wolf approach fence in curve. Den Wolf turns head. White Wolf and Den Wolf sniff air. Cream 2 turns back. White Wolf and Den Wolf turn sides to observer.

10:00 am: Daughter Wolf submits to Cream 1. Cream 2 yawns at Cream 1. Cream 1's, White Wolf's, and Den Wolf's backs and sides turned to observer. Vocalizations occurred during submission. Short Ears turns back to Den Wolf.

10:07 am: Short Ears lies down, a calming signal (Abrantes, Dog Language, 1997). Daughter Wolf passes, yawns.

Two grey-colored wolves walking together.

10:10 am: White Wolf approaches observer, turns head, sniffs ground. White Wolf muzzle-nudges Den Wolf. Cream 2, Daughter Wolf, Den Wolf and White Wolf growl. Den Wolf licks Cream 2's muzzle. Short Ears crouches as Cream 2, White Wolf, and Daughter Wolf pass, a sign of submission (Esker, 1998).

10:20 am: Daughter Wolf and Light Cream approach observer, and turn their backs. Cream 2 lies down, turns head. All wolves lie down or walk with heads turned from observer.

10:25 am: Cream 2 sniffs air. All wolves approach gate, turn from observer. Daughter Wolf turns back to observer.

11:05 am: Light Cream narrows eyes, blinks. Softening the gaze is a sign used to calm another animal (Rigaas, 1997). Cream 1 stretches, yawns.

11:10 am: Daughter Wolf licks White Wolf.

11:15 am: Daughter Wolf follows Den Wolf into den. Three Creams follow, growl. Den Wolf emerges, Cream 2 forces him to full submission. Den Wolf paws Cream 2, Cream 1 paws ground.

11:25 am: Two Creams, Daughter Wolf, White Wolf approach gate. Den Wolf muzzle-nudges Daughter Wolf and Cream 1.

11:29 am: Cream 1 plays with stick.

11:33 am: White Wolf, Den Wolf Short Ears, and Light Cream approach observer. Light Cream yawns. Light Cream licks air. Daughter Wolf muzzle-nudges Light Cream.

Two wolves on flat terrain behind a chainlink fence. The wolf named Cream 2 bumps Daughter Wolf.

11:39 am: Cream 2 bumps Daughter Wolf. Bumping is a redirected behavior used by pups when they nurse (Knudsen, 1999).

11:40 am: All wolves patrol perimeter of enclosure. Den Wolf goes into den. Wolves follow, look in den. Den Wolf comes out. Den Wolf muzzle-nudges Daughter Wolf, Cream 1, White Wolf. Den Wolf lies on back and paws. Den Wolf blinks often.

11:45 am: Den Wolf stretches. All wolves muzzle-nudge, yawn. Wolves chase Den Wolf. Den Wolf in full submission. Den Wolf walks in wide curve.

11:55 am: Wolves pace, yawn. It is normal feeding time on weekdays. Wolves are excited.

12:14 pm: Daughter Wolf and Short Ears meet. Turn heads away from each other.

12:30 pm: Short Ears rests head on Daughter Wolf. Physical contact promotes calming (Abrantes, Dog Language, 1997).

12:58 pm: Light Cream, tail high, moves into prairie. Light Cream leaves scent-marks. Dominant behaviors (Esker, 1998).

Several wolves interacting with one another on a grassy terrain.

1:09 pm: Light Cream wanders through high grass, scent-marking. Wolves begin moving into prairie section of enclosure. This is the time bones are thrown. Pack becomes excited.

1:12 pm: Den Wolf swings around Cream 2 in a curve. Cream 1 approaches Short Ears. Short Ears turns head, sniffs ground.

1:14 pm: Cream 2 yawns. Den Wolf, Daughter Wolf muzzle-nudge Short Ears. Daughter Wolf licks Cream 1. Short Ears muzzle-nudges Light Cream.

1:28 pm: Light Cream, Cream 2, Den Wolf lick muzzles. Daughter Wolf yawns, stretches. All wolves lick Light Cream's muzzle. Many wolves sniff ground.

Four woves interacting with one another on grassy terrain.

1:30 pm: Wolves mill around. Cream 2 walks between Den Wolf, Short Ears, separating them, stemming any possible aggression (Rigaas, 1997). White Wolf lies down.

1:35 pm: Wolves approach outlook. Many sniff ground. Light Cream gets first bone. Light Cream picks and chooses bones, attacks another wolf, dominant behavior (Esker, 1998). Light Cream chases Den Wolf away from bone. Den Wolf licks air.

Three wolves poised on green grass waiting for bones.

1:40 pm: Light Cream approaches Cream 2 with bone in mouth. Cream 2 moves into play position. Play is used during confrontations to appease aggressive animals (Zimen, 1997).

1:45 pm: Light Cream attacks Den Wolf, takes bone. Light Cream and Den Wolf sniff as they come closer. Den Wolf turns from Light Cream. Den Wolf walks away from Daughter Wolf. White Wolf stands with mouth drawn back.

From my observations, I concluded that frequent use of calming signals is not dependent on the social rank of the wolf. Rather, these signals are used far more often than originally expected. The data suggests that certain wolves, such as Daughter Wolf, take the role of peacemaker, making it their duty to downplay aggression and comfort their peers. The data also indicates that relations within a wolf pack are indeed extremely complex.

As we enter the twenty-first century, I believe the use of calming signals among wolves will eventually become less pronounced, based on two scenarios. The first suggests that as the wild wolf population decreases, more wolf refuges will be created. The aggressive tendencies of these wolves will decrease due to contact with humans and the fact that hunting will no longer be essential to their survival. With aggressive behavior curbed, the need for calming signals will gradually lessen. We see this phenomenon today in domesticated dogs.

The second scenario is rooted in man's perception of the wolf. If wolf refuges are not founded, and wolf reintroduction projects such as Yellowstone fail, wolves will vanish. As the wolf becomes extinct, so will the use of canine calming signals.

The future of the wolf is uncertain. There are many factors to consider, such as the extinction of these animals or domestication through zoos and refuges. The twenty-first century will be a tumultuous one for the wolf, but, it is hoped, one that will bring about many positive changes, disproving my predictions.

Two wolves interacting on grassy terrain. Cream 2 bows in play position.


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