You don’t need to bring a wolf into your house to know they’re a bit different from dogs. Sure, the two species share a common ancestor, and yeah, okay, they share a genetic connection, too. Heck, many dogs even look strikingly similar to modern-day wolves! Still, no one’s checking out the Westminster wolf show.
But experts recently conducted a study in which they observed the behaviors of wolves raised by humans — you know, the norm for their dog counterparts. While the results confirmed wolves and dogs are indeed very different, other evidence suggested their similarities might be even more important than we realize.
One study conducted from DNA found in Siberia suggests there are at least 27,000 years between the modern dog and wolf. Despite similar appearances, it’s clear that, at some point, the evolutionary paths of both animals diverged. While dogs still have lupine instincts, it wasn’t known until recently how dog-like wolves really are.
Counselling / Pixabay
Wolves actively fear humans, and they avoid territory occupied by them. They’re also far more independent than their domesticated counterparts despite their pack-like mentality. For example, when wolf packs go hunting, the pups are often left alone to learn to take care of themselves.
Dorottya Ujfalussy, from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, was more interested in the similarities between the two animals, though. For example, both wolves and dogs like to greet each other by licking the other’s faces. Similarly, both dogs and wolves can understand certain human gestures, like pointing fingers — something chimps actually struggle to understand!
Don Johnston / All Canada Photos / Corbis
Ujfalussy conducted a study that analyzed the characteristics exhibited by wolves that were raised by human caregivers. Ten grey wolves pups participated, seven females and three males, all of which were raised by humans and lived in captive packs.
The pups started the program when they were only 4-6 days old and were assigned to a foster parent. They spent 22-24 hours a day in close contact with their caregiver and were socialized in a domestic way.
Dorottya Júlia Ujfalussy
For the first four-to-six weeks, the pups were carried in pouches. Later, they were leash trained so they could be exposed to domestic social situations, like encountering human strangers, novel objects, and urban settings. They were also socialized with their littermates several times per week.
After about one year of care, the wolves were assimilated back into a wolf pack environment. All the while, scientists made some remarkable observations and concluded there was one common dog-like trait observed in all their wolves.
The common trait? Wolves who associated nurture with a human exhibited a unique attachment to their specific caregiver. There was an evident level of trust and companionship prominent between the pair.
Royal Society Open Science published this research on June 27, 2017, which concluded not only did wolves express a connection to their human caregiver, but these feelings lasted through the animals’ adulthood, even if they still retained their inherent sense of fear toward humans.
Such observations led researchers to believe the common ancestor of dogs and wolves may have actually been open to human companionship, leading to the evolution of the friendlier, cuddlier ancestor — the dog that we all know and love.
Upon further observation of the behavior between wolf and human, it was noted that when socializing, wolves approached a human similarly to the way they would approach a member of their pack. This would include contact seeking and submissive behavior.
Sander van der Wel / Flickr
Wolves approached their human caregiver with lowered-body posture with lowered ears and low wagging tail. They would also display face-to-face oriented licking, jumping, and pawing, usually followed by a leaning or rubbing/nudging motion on the human.
Kathryn Lord of University of Massachusetts Medical School stated, “this result is exciting, not because wolves are more social than we thought, but because it is a step in uncovering the complexities of the differences between dogs and wolves in how they interact with humans.”
Learning the key differences between wolves and dogs can only help us further understand the ancestral lineage and evolutionary divergence that has lead to the wolf and dog species we know today.
Like any thorough scientific study, there were a number of other observations and conclusions made. Perhaps the most important one, though, was that as much as wolves have the capacity to connect with humans, they are not domesticated animals.
They are still wild by nature, and they still are an entirely different species than dogs, even if raised by humans. This means that people should not try and domesticate wild wolves or wolf pups!
“The problem starts when people disregard the advice of professionals and mistake wolves for dogs, keeping them as pets,” Ujfalussy said. “This is a serious welfare issue for wolves, as 99 percent of those animals will eventually be given up and usually euthanized.”
This is especially true when wolves are taken out of their natural habitats to live with humans. Moreover, studies of a dog’s brain prove that they are truly happier around us — even more than when they’re around other dogs! Humans reduce stress in dogs. Yet, that’s not the case with wild wolves.
Mike Baird / Flickr
This research was quite groundbreaking. “What we learned from our study is that while dogs may be more attached to their human caretaker in the sense of dependence and using their owners as a secure base,” Ujfalussy said, “wolves are also able to form lasting affiliative relationships with their caretakers, though without a sense of dependence.”
Ujfalussy’s final note was: “Basically, wolves are wild animals, more independent, hard to control, hard to manage, and health-keeping conditions are impossible to provide in the human home, thus tame wolves kept as pets are a real danger to their environment and to themselves.”
Tambako the Jaguar / Flickr
These evolutionary ties can also make for some pretty startling interactions across species. Nick Jans, an Alaskan wildlife photographer, witnessed this phenomenon firsthand.
While sitting on his porch with his dog, Nick witnessed a wolf emerge from the woods. Before he could react, his dog, Dakotah, ran straight for the wild animal.
Though he was initially terrified, Nick then saw something he never expected. He quickly grabbed his camera and snapped this photo.
The two animals seemed to have something in common: they wanted to play. As the two chased each other around, Nick decided to give the wolf a name — Romeo.
Apparently, this wasn’t the first time Romeo had such an encounter. The wolf had been making quite a reputation for himself down the way at Mendenhall Glacier Park, where he was often spotted playing with other dogs.
Though many people in the community were startled at first, Romeo won them over every time with his friendliness and charm. After all, he just wanted to play!
Soon Romeo became part of every dog owner in the area’s routine. He was about as quick to befriend the humans in the park as he was the other animals.
“He would even bring out toys that he’d stashed,” Nick said in an interview. “One was a Styrofoam float. Romeo would pick it up and bring it to [my friend] Harry to throw.”
Nick added that Romeo “clearly understood the same sort of behaviors that we see in dogs.” The happy family “wasn’t just our understanding and tolerance. It was the combination of his and ours and the dogs’.”
For six whole years, Romeo made frequent appearances. “We were these three species working out how to get along harmoniously. And we did.”
Over that time, Romeo became a sort of symbol to the local people of their close relationship with the Alaskan wilderness.
It wasn’t just the locals Romeo was attracting, but those from further away as well. Some people would travel to the park specifically to see these incredible interactions firsthand.
Still, while the locals knew him to be friendly, visitors were always a little wary — and for good reason. It is a wild animal chasing your beloved pet…
Despite this, Romeo was quick to steal the hearts of even the most frightened dog or human in his presence.
At times, it almost looked as though Romeo had some sort of magnetic force that those nearby simply couldn’t resist.
“He was downright relaxed and tolerant from the start,” Nick said, “as if he had dropped out of the sky like a unicorn.” Unfortunately, this was not to last.
Tragically, in 2009, Romeo was shot and killed by a group of hunters. The community and all those surrounding took it quite hard.
Residents of Juneau then held a memorial service for the beloved wolf and even had a plaque made in his honor. That plaque is still there. Written on it are the words: “Romeo 2003-2009. The spirit of Juneau’s friendly black wolf lives on in this wild place.”
Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire