Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon.
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 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 also been suggested that wolves howl to confuse enemies and prey.
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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 best friends chatting about their day.
This is an eclectic list of functions, but in no case is the moon involved as a motivating factor. So, again, where does the myth come from? Lopez offers a compelling theory: “Howling reaches a seasonal peak in the winter months, during the time of courtship and breeding; it is easy to see how the idea that wolves howl at the moon might have gained credence and played well on the imagination during these cold, clear nights when the sound carried far and a full moon lent an eerie aspect to a snowscape.” This reminds me of the “wolf moon” of January, a name given to the full moon supposedly, and perhaps apocryphally, because of the hungry packs that once gathered outside Native American villages.
But the association of wolves with the moon has developed over centuries and in many other parts of the world. In Norse mythology, the descendants of Loki (the trickster god of “Thor” fame) were wolves prophesied to eventually devour the moon and sun. Perhaps because the wolf has spent so long being framed as something demonic and evil, and with evil indelibly linked to the night, flights of association have hardened into truism. Gothic fiction certainly kicked things along a bit. It’s really no wonder we’re confused today.