Non-howling silent wolves in Belarus

Every time rereading the excellent wolf monograph by Mech and Boitani (2003), in particular, the item about wolf communication by Harrington and Asa, I was surprised to find out how rich voice-communication of wolves in North America and somewhere else can be. In my study areas in Belarus (look like in the whole country) I can characterize wolves as non-howling let’s say silent.  More and more I become convinced that wolves in Belarus avoid to produce any loud noise.

As to the question, in this post I will concern three points. First, what is the information I apply to state about non-howling silent wolves in Belarus. Second, what are the reasons for wolves to be silent in Belarus. Third, which kinds of communications do wolves apply in Belarus.

I can’t say that dealing with wolves in Belarus for longer than 20 years and being in the wild for long periods since childhood,  I have heard wolf howling a few times only.  No, I’ve heard howling for many times. But it has happened mainly in two certain situations. The first one is when I or somebody else provokes wolf howling, and the local wolves replied. The second situation is overnighting in wolf habitats, when wolves approach the camping place and start to howl nearby a lot, sometimes, even bark deafly. It’s clear why they do that. They just would like to get rid of us by scaring us with sounds of their presence.

Other cases of howling by wolves in Belarus were really rare (I have heard up to ten times), despite of around two years totally spent overnighting in wolf habitats (in Belarus wolves have been usual everywhere in the forests) during 40 years. Additionally, quite often I listened to the sounds of the night forest  in the evenings and early mornings.  I have worked with wolf reproduction a lot, found 73 den with pups, and these wolf litters were traced by me till the next winter. I have registered wolf silence again and again. Moreover, during the long-term practice in the wild I faced with seven occasions, when a wolf pack hunted and killed a big prey i.e. elk or red deer not far away, and potentially, I could hear their sounds, if they used a language, while hunting. Quite opposite, nothing.  Silence and only silence. Also, we have got hundreds of wolf photos with camera-traps, and there is no one showing a wolf producing a sound. Talking to people more or less experienced with wolves in Belarus suggested the same.

Why our wolves in Belarus are so silent compared to other regions like the North America? The answer seems to be simple. The reason relates to about a thousand of years of persecution of wolves by human on this land. Wolves just avoid to indicate themselves with howling and other sounds. It is strikingly dangerous, they think, and may be used in an extreme case only like presence of human in their own places at night, when wolves feel themselves safely. Or like wolves howl in their core area in the cases, when human provoke them with artificial howling by themselves or special call.

As to the noisy features of wolves in North America, wolves were extirpated over most of their North-American range, later followed by reintroduction and spontaneous recolonization of large areas (e.g. Paquet & Carbyn, 2003). During wolf expansion in North America hybridization of wolf with stray dogs and coyotes could frequently happen. This hybridization could also invest more noisy character of wolves in North America compared to Eurasia.  Another great difference is that the indigenous people, i.e. native North Americans have never persecuted wolves, and only the European invaders and then the new Americans began extirpating wolves in North America about two centuries ago. So, the persecution had not been for long means less motivation to avoid a sound communication.

Conversely in Belarus and Europe in the whole,  wolves were  persecuted for almost a thousand of years i.e a considerably longer time. Strong persecution (like an eradication) of wolves in Belarus by human began in the 16th century. At the same time  despite of the longer and heavier wolf persecution by humans, wolves in Eurasia have never been extirpated on such a large spatial scale as in North America. Another example is hybridization of wolves with stray dogs. Again conversely  to North America,  hybridization was a rare phenomenon in Belarus, at least,  until the early 2000’s. A European study on wolf genetics revealed that at that time the wolf population in Belarus displayed very little genetical contamination by hybridization with stray dogs; none of the genetically investigated wolves from Belarus showed dog ancestry (Stronen et al., 2013).

Concerning communication among wolves in Belarus, our data (a lot of snowtracking and camera-trapping) on the question suggest that wolves communicate by scent-related way and body language mainly and at the same time wolves strongly avoid producing loud sounds.  So, they are indeed silent here.

6 thoughts on “Non-howling silent wolves in Belarus”

  1. Hello Vadim

    I can confirm your observations in Belarus from my own experience in Germany. I have spent many nights in the middle of the woods in search of wolves and other wildlife in Lower Saxony Brandenburg and Saxony. Only once I heard wolves howling at night in areas where we had several sightings and made photos on wildlife cameras, found scats, killings and tracks, all this confirming the presence of wolves nearby. Even when thousands hunters in Germany spend thousands of hour at dawn or dusk in their hunting hides reports of wolves howwlings are extremely rare. The most convincing evidence for the silence of wolves in Germany is the silence of the media concerning this matter. If there would be hearings, there would be reports in the press for sure since wolves in Germany often do not live or roam around far from human settlements. The press surely would make a great fuss of wolves howling near human settlements (kindergardens esp.!) Since this is not the case, it is a clear indication that the wolves in Germany seem to avoid howling and are silent most of the time.
    After decades of persecution and partial elemination it seems plausible that the avoidence of howling might be an adaptive evolutionary result like the wolves’ timidity and wariness in general.

    However, even the wolves in North America do not howl much too. At least in the pup rearing time they seem to do not. On thousands of miles of private trips through the wilderness of Alaska and Canada (mostly by canoe in very remote aereas) we often were lucky to see wolves. Sometimes they even came to our camp. I have a very light sleep and wake up with every unfamiliar noise outside the tent. This has saved us many a bad experience with bears. During many years five times only did we hear wolves howling. Once when a pack circled our camp for several hours at night. However, It must be pointed out that we travelled from July until the beginning of September only, a time in which the packs are not yet roaming together with their pups.

    Best regards

  2. Another thought on the subject of genetic influence on vocal communication in canids:
    A convincing proof of the disappearance of howling by evolutionary genetic processes is provided by the vocal communication of modern domestic dogs. In many domestic dogs, man has completely eliminated the annoying and unwanted howling by selective breeding. However, the rare barking of the wolf was boosted in the breeding of domestic dogs. Barking was and is desirable, for example, in guard dogs or hunting dogs.
    The result of human selection are many modern dogbreeds (and hybrids resp.) that bark but do not howl at all.

  3. Another observation concerning howling and non-howling wolves:

    This year we found two reproducing wolfpacks living close together. At one den we had sightings of 5 pups. Additionally this was documented on wildlife cameras. At the same time only 3.5 km distant we documented by video at least 9 pups of the neighboring pack. 9 pups and three adults were playing on a wide meadow.
    The following evenings and nights there was quite a lot of howling in the homesite of this pack. It was clearly noticable at the homesite of the neighboring pack. But there was never heard any answer by howling of any member of the neighboring pack.
    Moreover we never heard any howling of this pack even I spent several nights there close to the denning site.
    Who knows why?
    Best regards


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