Communicating visually is probably as important to wolves as communicating with sounds and scents, but it can be much harder to master. Wolves use their face, posture, hair, and tail to communicate, and often use multiple cues at the same time, according to Fred Harrington and Cheryl Asa in "Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation." A dominant wolf ready to attack, for instance, will bare its teeth, have its hackles raised and legs stiff, and move slowly and deliberately. A submissive wolf, on the other hand, will hide its teeth, carry its body low, keep its fur sleek, and lower its ears and tail.
The tail is the wolf's most dynamic visual aid, according to one researcher. A raised tail makes a wolf look bigger. A wagging tail conveys friendliness. A stiff tail moving slowly may signal an attack. That researcher illustrated eleven tail positions that convey a variety of moods including assertion, intimidation, threat, submission, uncertainty, and depression.
To survive in a pack, a young wolf must learn to read a countless combination of visual signals. Knowing the signals to read or send reduces conflict with family members. Harrington and Asa give two examples:
- A wolf intrudes on the personal space of another wolf. The intruder realizes his mistake when the other wolf bares its teeth and growls.
- During mating season when males are vying for honors, the visual cues between two opposing males may look like a dance accompanied by growls and whines, snarls and yelps.
Wolves must be able to see visual cues at any time. To that end, they have what Harrington and Asa call "24-hour" eyes, adapted to seeing during day and night. Though wolves lose color vision and some acuity at night, they can still see the features of nearby family members, a plus when the pack is trying to bring down a meal. Though wolves may have better vision than dogs, they are not as good as seeing at night as cats.
Tactile communication in wolves has not been studied much, say Harrington and Asa. But touch is important to wolves from birth. Deaf and blind newborn pups nurse by using their senses of touch and smell. As they grow, wolves learn friendly and aggressive touches. While walking, for example, contented family members make brief muzzle-to-muzzle or muzzle-to-fur contact. When aggressive, a wolf may push against another's flank or pin an opponents muzzle to the ground.
Touch can reduce stress and strengthen bonds. Harrington and Asa mention studies of humans and their pet dogs which "have shown that tactile contact reduces heart rate and blood pressure in both humans and dogs." They speculate the same may happen between wolves.
Touch is also helpful in assessing a rival's strength or skill. Young wolves may play fight as a way of assessing family members. An older wolf, on the other hand, may avoid allowing other wolves to physically engage him and uncover his possibly fading strength.
Cick here to read part one on howling.
Cick here to read part two on sense of smell.
Link to Living with Wolves on language of wolves.
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the Amazon Bestseller "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone." Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.