The Zoosemiotic Page: Wolf Matters

Learning about the social lives of other species, such as wolves (Canis lupus), is complicated by the difficulty of observing them in the wild.  Over the past few decades, increased opportunities to observe pack life have led to a huge shift in our understanding of wolf social behavior. The early focus on pack politics and the need for a strong dominance hierarchy to control aggression and breeding rights within the pack has been replaced by a focus on family, amicability and cooperation.

In part, our more enlightened understanding of the social lives of wolves was facilitated by opportunities to do observational research on captive wolves in their “natural” environment in facilities such as the Canadian Center for Wolf Research (CCWR).   Founded by John Fentress in the 1970s, CCWR was a remote forested compound (3.8 ha) where several generations of wolves lived, bred, reared pups and died. These wolves were pack-reared in their natal enclosure, were not socialized to humans, and were not handled except in the rare veterinary emergency.  The facility was not open to the public. Wolf activities were observed and videotaped several times a week from one of two observation structures located outside the enclosure next to a clearing that was used frequently by wolves.  In sharp contrast to the early notions about wolf social behaviour, the daily life of the wolves at CCWR was generally amicable, with the occasional spat or fight when someone was out of line.  Wolves (parents, aunts and uncles) were exceedingly solicitous of their pups (Fentress & Ryon, 1982) and they played throughout adulthood. The style of pack leadership depended strongly on the personalities of the parent wolves and ranged from despot to benign dictator.  In other words, pack life was mostly devoid of the heavy-pawed dominance activities previously reported.

Since the 1990s, field biologists have been able to observe wild wolf packs more directly in Yellowstone National Park (Smith & Ferguson, 2006) and on Ellesmere Island (Mech, 2008).  Not surprisingly, their reports about wolf social behaviors confirmed observations made at CCWR to a remarkable degree.  Free-ranging wolf packs are generally family groups composed of parents (i.e., the breeding pair), young of the year and sometimes off-spring from previous years.  This family group works together to rear their young and provision the pack; cooperation among pack members is critical to survival.

In keeping with current views of pack life, studies of close-range vocal communication at CCWR have revealed that squeaking, a friendly close-range vocalization that was first described by Crisler (1958) and Fentress (1967), is one of the most frequently heard vocalizations within the pack. Jacqueline Weir (1999) recorded and videotaped the wolves at CCWR when they were in the clearing to study the characteristics of squeaking and its function role in a wolf pack.   The squeaking vocalization occurs in a wide range of social situations (e.g., playing, greeting, feeding, parenting, aggression) and is made by all members of the pack. Squeaking vocalizations consist of a series of individual squeaks organized hierarchically into phrases.  Individual squeaks are brief, soft, tonal, high frequency (2-4 kHz) sounds. This close-range vocalization contains acoustic information about individual identity, the context, and the friendly motivation of the squeaking wolf.  The ubiquity of this affiliative vocalization within a wolf pack underscores the generally amiable, cooperative reality of life in a wolf pack. This is not to say that wolf society is always peaceable; daily life within a pack depends on the situation and the natures of the individuals involved.

The video shows CCWR wolves at food and squeaking can be heard.  The wolf trotting in from the woods is squeaking, perhaps to announce its identity and friendly intention as it approaches the other wolves at the food.


Crisler, L. (1958). Arctic wild.  NY: Harper and Row.

Fentress, J. C. (1967).  Observations on the behavioral development of a hand-reared male timber wolf.  American Zoologist, 7, 339 – 351.

Fentress, J.C. & Ryon, J. (1982).  A long-term study of distributed pup feeding in captive wolves.  In F. H. Harrington & P. C. Paquet (Eds.).  Wolves of the world:  Perspectives of behavior, ecology, and conservation.  Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Publications.

Mech, L. D. (2008).  Whatever happened to the term alpha?  International Wolf Magazine, 4 – 8.  Available at:  HYPERLINK “

Smith, D. W. & Ferguson, G. (2005). Decade of the wolf.  Guilford, CT: Lyons Press.

Weir, J. N. (1999).  The contexts and sounds of the squeaking vocalizations of wolves (Canis lupus).  M.Sc. thesis, Biopsychology Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, Memorial University of Newfoundland. (Manuscript in preparation).

For more on wolves, see the Google Books preview of Barbara Keevil Parker’s book.


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