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A wolf has tipped back its head. The moon in the background
Image: Imago/Anka Agency International/G. Lacz

The great misunderstanding

Klaus Esterluss
February 19, 2018

When we think of wolves, we tend to think of the animal that devoured Little Red Riding Hood and that howls at the moon. But do they really? Our natural phenomenon offers a little insight.


Let's take a moment to think about wolves. What is the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps fairy tales featuring forests, dark nights, wicked animals with eyes that glimmer as they maraud among innocent flocks of sheep? Or that archetypical image of a wolf in silhouette, it's head thrust back as it howls attentively at the fully formed moon that hovers cold and blue in the background.

For centuries, Canis lupus has been depicted in fables and stories as strong, ruthless, evil and lacking in intelligence. Duped by hunter, child and fox alike. And in more contemporary popular incarnations, the poor old wolf fares little better. In some cases, even worse. Take the video to Michael Jackson's Thriller, where the horrific is packaged as the transformation of a human into a werewolf howling into the night.

The true story?

But the truth of the matter is that wolves don't howl at the moon. At least not directly. Though because they are nocturnal, they do exercise their vocal chords after dark. It's also true that they tip their heads back to do so. Not to fulfill any cliché, says Lucas Ende, who works with environmental associationNABU's wolf project (in German), but to ensure their calls can be heard from a distance.

Although the animals live in packs - generally comprising parents, most recent litter of pups and any from the previous year that have not yet struck out on their own - here in Europe, they roam territories of between 200 and 300 square kilometers, which means they are often a long way from each other.

European wolf pups on a field
Cute and misunderstood - wolves are not facing extinction, but in some places, their numbers are far from stableImage: Imago/blickwinkel/H. Pieper

So they howl, or call to reveal their whereabouts. But not only during a full moon. And it's also not the only way they make themselves understood.

"Principally, wolves communicate in a nonverbal way through the position of their ears, facial expression and body language," Ende says, adding that their age tends to determine whether they are part of a family or a lone wolf.Regardless of their status, they are shy animals who tend to avoid contact with humans. In several countries, including Germany, where there were between 140 and 160 adults in 2017, they are considered endangered. Globally, however, the picture is more positive, because the species has such a large range.

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