A study conducted by a team of scientists at Lincoln University showed that wolves recognize and respond more to the voices of familiar people than to the voices of strangers. This discovery has implications not only for the history of dog domestication, but also for our broader understanding of the natural world.
The experiments were conducted in five zoos and wildlife parks in Spain and involved 24 gray wolves, both males and females, ranging in age from one to 13. The team set up speakers and first played the animals the voice of several strangers they were “used to.” Then they played the wolves the voice of their caretaker, who told them familiar things in Spanish.
The results of the experiment showed that the wolves were more likely to respond to the words of familiar caretakers than to strangers. To check that the effect was not random, the researchers went back to the wolves’ playback of the strangers’ notes and found that they lost interest again. Finally, to make sure that the wolves actually knew the voices of their caretakers and not just knew the words that familiar people usually say to them, the team mixed things up and had the caretakers utter a stream of unfamiliar phrases. Once again, the results were confirmed.
The fact that wolves communicate with disembodied voices reproduced through speakers echoes what was observed in dogs of the gramophone era and today’s video calls. In terms of implications, this discovery is important because wolves had the ability to distinguish between humans, even though our species took different evolutionary paths tens of millions of years ago.
Prior to that, there had been limited research on how animals distinguish the vocalizations of other species. Studies have shown that our close relatives gorillas listen to humans, but that is to be expected. Elephants with large brains have also been found to distinguish sex, age and ethnicity from humans by their voices.
According to Holly Ruth-Gutteridge, this discovery could mean that many species listen to us and recognize us as individuals. She also noted that dogs can listen to their neighbors’ cats and understand the difference between one meow and another.