Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that they 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 colorblindness (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.
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 book “Of Wolves and Men.” Hearing a howl in the wild — or howls, because wolves harmonize with one another — is startling. 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 familiar and alien, it seems uncanny — attractive and repulsive at the same time, engineered to give you the creeps. If animal noises are “music,” as Lopez suggests, wolves are the Angelo Badalamenti of the animal kingdom.
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.
But emotional rationales have been put forth for howling — restlessness, anxiety, stress, frustration, loneliness and excitement. Recent research has found that wolves howl most frequently to the members of their packs they spend the most time with. That sounds an awful lot like humans chatting about the day.