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April 24, 2014

Why do wolves howl?

Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths). There are countless depictions of moon howling in faux Native American tchotchkes; the scene also appears in Jack London novels and at least one Los Angeles piano bar. This curious fiction has become so quotidian that even The New Yorker's legendary fact checkers let "a long, lamenting howl at the orange moon" slide into print without a second thought.

The truth is that wolves - the real-life, Canis lupus variety - don't howl at the moon. Scientists have found no correlation between the canine and Earth's satellite, except perhaps an increase in overall activity on brighter nights. So how did the idea gain such traction, and what do wolves howl at?

"There has been more speculation about the nature and function of the wolf's howl than the music, probably, of any other animal," writes Barry Lopez in his extraordinary book "Of Wolves and Men." Hearing a howl in the wild - or howls, because wolves harmonize with one another - is a startling experience. Howling rises and falls in pitch, skirting the edges of human music like a men's choir fed through a synthesizer. Because the sound is both familiar and alien, it seems uncanny - attractive and repulsive at the same time. If animal noises are "music," as Lopez suggests, then wolves are the Angelo Badalamenti of the animal kingdom. The howl seems engineered to give you the creeps.

Biologists have identified a surprisingly wide range of possible functions: Wolves howl to assemble their pack, attract a mate, mark territory, scare off enemies, signal alarm or communicate their position. Sometimes they howl when they wake up in the morning, like humans yawning during a stretch. It's even been suggested that wolves howl to confuse enemies and prey. Traveling on horseback in Texas, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant once heard howling and figured there were 20 wolves; it turned out there were only two. "Seated upon their haunches, with their mouths close together, they had made all the noise we had been hearing for the past 10 minutes," he wrote in his memoir.

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