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Researchers have analysed over 2000 wolf howls to better understand how they communicate. By observing their behaviour we know that wolves howl to communicate over long distances, to keep their pack together on the move, and to defend their territory. This latest study is the most comprehensive carried out to date and the scientists recorded 2000 howls from 13 species and fed them to a computer to analyse. Human ears can’t always hear all the pitches wolves make so the computer is needed to really listen to all that goes into a howl – It turns out quite a lot! The research found that different species and sub-species of wolves used “markedly different” howl types and that the modulation pattern in their howls can be used to distinguish between different populations. The point of this research is to aid in population conservation and management. Recordings of wolves’ howls can be used to estimate population levels and being able to distinguish between subspecies can really help us to know how endangered populations are doing and whether populations reintroduced into areas are doing ok. Wolf rewilding projects are increasing the numbers of wolves available for studies such as these.
In the middle ages wolves were plentiful and demonised because they were one of the few predators that posed a danger to humans in Europe. Forests were dark scary dangerous places as the Grimm brothers warned us in Little Red Riding Hood. In America too, wolves terrified and massively outnumbered the first European settlers even though the native population had lived more respectfully and harmoniously with this predator. Wolf skins happened to be highly coveted in Europe so the new settlers made a substantial sum of money exporting wolf fur back to Europe. They were able to remove a threat and earn an income at the same time. No thought was given to the long-term survival of the wolf or how it might effect other wildlife. In Europe wolves were hunted to extinction in some areas with the last wolf in Ireland killed in 1768. In the 21st century we have come to realise that wolves are a key part of the ecosystem they live in. After the wolf rewilding experiment in Yellowstone National Park in America began in 1995 the important role of just one species to the habitat became dramatically obvious. Previously the enormous deer population overgrazed much of the vegetation and removed it as a habitat for many creatures. With the reintroduction of grey wolves the deer population was reduced. The deer changed their grazing patterns and the vegetation began to regrow providing habitats for smaller animals. The river banks stabilised due to the return of riverside vegetation and more beavers moved in. The beavers dams became habitats too and aquatic life diversified. The wolves killed coyotes and this increased the numbers of rabbits, hawks, foxes, badgers and weasels. The wolves’ leftovers fed the American Bald Eagles and is partially responsible for the increase in number in the national symbol in the past twenty years and has tentatively placed them off the endangered list for now. The return of wolves has enriched Yellowstone’s diverse ecosystem back to what it was like before the last of the Yellowstone wolves were killed in the 1930s.
There doesn’t seem to be any plans for wolf rewilding in Ireland yet but there is a wilderness project in Mayo that includes areas of Ballycroy National Park and is a step in the right direction for re-balancing the ecosystems of Ireland.
Image: Wolf Howling at UK Wolf Conservation Trust by Retron.