Do wolves howl at the moon for real?
Updated: May 6, 2020
‘How’s it going?’ the blind man asks the lame man. ‘As you see,’ the lame man answers the blind man.
- Sigmund Freud (The Joke and its relations to the Unconscious)
Amusing fact and serious myth
Orangutans, bonobos, gorillas, chimpanzees - all our primate relatives - make laughing sounds when tickled. Does it mean that these animals have a physical sensation of humour and hence, a sense of humour, as we perceive the faculty to be? The short answer is no. The exact answer would be that it’s totally dependent on what constitutes as humour in human paradigm, which, of course, may not be valid in animal kingdom. Research tends to actually indicate that our inclination to laugh came from great apes’ and humans’ last common ancestors.
Polo, listed as critically endangered and housed in Mysore Zoo as the only Indian Gorilla till 2014 before his death, caught under my camera with a humourous/smiling expression after tickling himself!
After all, our ancestors had a sense of humour coupled with great imagination, as much as fear stemming from ignorance. Not for nothing they came up with the anecdote in Norse mythology where they attributed the imagery of a pair of wolves (Hati, “One Who Hates”, and Sköll,“One Who Mocks”) chasing the moon and sun to eat them.
This resonates very much with Hindu mythology where decapitated head of demon Svarbhānu (“He who darkens the luminaries”) called Rahu, and his mortal body, Ketu, chased moon and sun to seek vengeance because they unfolded his trick as Svarbhānu (asuras) joined the demi-gods (suras) to get the nectar of immortality after both demi-gods and demons participated in the milk-ocean churning to extract ‘Amrita’, the elixir of life, according to Bhāgavata Purāṇa.
The sun and moon felt his shadow and alerted Vishnu who managed to beguile other demons except Svarbhānu in the form of a beautiful woman Mohini, in order to deny the asuras the coveted potion. Vishnu used his weapon to behead Svarbhānu because the idea was to not let the asuras enjoy the fruits of their labour due to possible adverse ramifications of their immortality. But since Svarbhānu’s head already touched the nectar, his head became separated from his body but still remained immortal (Rahu) while the headless body was called Ketu.
It was believed that when Rahu managed to grab and swallow moon, it resulted in lunar eclipse and when Ketu took a bite of sun, it resulted in solar eclipse. Both eclipses didn’t last because the cosmic luminaries were able to come out on the other side from the hollow space of a headless body. Rahu (lunar north node) and Ketu (lunar south node) were considered the nodal points in which the moon crossed the ecliptic path of sun.
Strikingly enough, even though these myths are entirely debunked with the progress of scientific understanding, the lunar nodes and eclipse points are still called as “Caput et Cauda Draconis” – the head and tail of the dragon, in many astronomical and astrological scriptures.
More than the idea of serpent or demon, however, the idea of wolves howling at the moon somehow got more engraved in collective imagination even though now most of us understand that there’s no conclusive connection between full moon and canine howling. Or is that so? Let’s see. ‘Let’s hear and enjoy those unbelievable stories, imageries and myths from our grandparents and ancient scriptures and let’s also delve into scientific studies’, I told myself.
The majesty and the lore
This myth came into picture because many ancient civilizations, mainly Native American legends, reinforced the intrigue of wolves howling specially at full moon night. The almost-mournful rallying cry haunted and stroked their imagination. So much so, that the first full moon of the year is still called as 'Wolf moon' or 'Hunger moon' because they thought that wolves howled more at this time due to the paucity of food during the cold winter. It’s a very common stock photography in web to see a wolf howling with a full luminescent moon in the background with surreal effect. I unfortunately didn't get any wolf, but I captured the Wolf Moon!
Wolf Moon Penumbral Lunar Eclipse, Bangalore || January 10, 2020
This entire imagery of wolves holding their faces upward towards sky is similar to how dogs howl at times, in a high-pitched prolonged note to announce their presence in the territory as well as to communicate with other dogs. We can easily distinguish this from the bark of a dog, which is typically a short and loud sound. Barking is more common in a dog because howling has lost much of its significance for a dog staying indoor and eating at periodic intervals without worrying about where the next meal will come from and how to eliminate competition for such basic resources.
But within or outside the pack, the free-ranging wolves still need to emit such low-frequency vocalization as a mode of communication for various reasons such as territory ownership announcement, territory patrolling, aggregation purposes, social cohesion and so on. Also, they often indulge in howling in chorus to warn rival members about own pack sizes.
The acoustic energy distribution is louder and far-reaching if they make the sound looking upward. Research suggests that each subspecies establishes their own howl patterns and shapes due to random mutations and genetic drift. While the Himalayan and North African wolves have the most distinct acoustic structure, the Indian wolf has the highest mean frequency as shown by a study of howl variations published in Current Zoology. But when a wolf pup is born, does this come purely instinctual or learnt as part of socialization with other pack members? I always wondered about it.
Didn't find the opportunity to observe wolves under moonlight yet. Captured this Arctic Wolf under sunlight, startled by a sound, in the Woodland Park trail, Seattle, Washington || February 9, 2020
"The wolves prey upon the lambs in the darkness of the night, but the blood stains remain upon the stones in the valley until the dawn comes, and the sun reveals the crime to all." : Khalil Gibran
Wolf chorus is actually a very complex, multi-layered component which offers a fascinating field of research and there’s a lot of difference between subspecies and across geography, almost reflecting a diverging social culture. Such regional difference in dialects has been noted in whales, bats, chimpanzees and even in birds.
But perhaps the more important question is whether the howls convey the same message even when it is different among subspecies? This becomes tricky as we also know now that every individual wolf can be identified by his own unique and distinctive howl.
But at least we can safely proclaim that none of them howl at the moon. Having said that, it doesn’t establish that the level of lunar irradiance has no impact on animal behaviors.
Biorhythms and rhyme
Many animals in fact exhibit minimal to significant difference in behavior and activity along with the lunar cycle. Moon’s gravitational force field tugs on earth to create tides and shapes reproduction cycle of not only coastal creatures, but along with it impacts the foraging, communication, reproduction and other aspects of larger animal world.
Several recent research revealed how lunar light influences predator behavior, dung beetle navigation, badger mating, fish growth, body temperature regulation, mass migrations, mass spawning of corals and even birdsong.
Lions are at their hungriest during the week following the full moon because during the illumination inside the forest canopy, the escape rate of preys is high; vampire bats and scorpions decrease their productivity at full moon night because they are more visible under the brighter light and it isn’t worth investment of too much effort specially for scorpions as they glow bluish in the dark when UV ray of moonlight reacts with proteins in their exoskeletons while Nightjar, a crepuscular bird which thrives on insects and relies on eyesight to catch them, uses full moon to its advantage.
Now it might be similarly interpreted that during full moon, nocturnal animals like wolves face more predation risk and less prey availability and that message needs to be communicated which impacts their typical howling pattern. An article in Behavioural Processes states that “On average, during the 10 h of darkness during a full moon maned wolves travelled 1.88 km less than on a new moon. These data suggest that maned wolves respond to temporally reduced prey availability by reducing their distance travelled".
Catarina Rydin and Kristina Bolinder of Stockholm University in Sweden did accidentally discover a rare plant called Ephedra foeminea whose pollination is governed by the full moon. “It all fitted, and all we had to do was wait for 2014’s full moon in July to see if that was what the plants were waiting for, and it absolutely was,” says Rydin. Find more.
Leave movements of plants and moisture content are partially controlled by moon's gravitational force, just like tidal energy; Bangalore || Supermoon of 14th November, 2016
I vividly remember watching supermoons from different vantage points in the last few years. After witnessing this supermoon of 2016, I wrote few lines:
Shall I brew you something to drink? From leaves and bones of our common grave Explodes this dream till crumbles In oblivion's shape And climbs from your perched throat As you stare agape, So would you take my buried ink?
Mood and modality
Let's go back to Svarbhānu now. Could it be a possibility that this myth of headless body actually signifies the stark demarcation of illuminated consciousness and eclipsed unconscious self in the duality of human existence, the proverbial battle between head and heart? Neuroscience states that our subconscious mind, which is the collective blueprint of our memories, impressions, thoughts, deep-seated beliefs about our own selves and the world by large, controls 90%-95% of our lives. There are indicative studies showing that since adult human bodies comprise of 60% of water (brain and heart are composed of 73% of water and lungs are about 83% of water), the change in moon's gravitational force field could have some influence on our state of mind. And there's serious research-based evidence that lunar cycle impacts our sleeping patterns. Go through this report in Current Biology to know more.
Or we are giving some ancient phantasmagorical thoughts more credit than it deserves? Well, if I just take a statistical observation about how many people known to me talk about anxiety and mood swings or behave a little differently during full moon phase, it scores very high in my limited sample space. But then, I cannot reach to a conclusion with this because in other times too such observation don't become negligible or absent. But based on my limited personal experience, I definitely have observed sharp alterations. Read this excellent article in BBC to know about the mood-altering power of moon.
What is not false is true? Or what is true is true? Or what cannot be proven true is false/ambiguous? Or what cannot be proven false is true/ambiguous? Or these are somehow connected to the essential ambiguity of quantum theory (ambiguous commutation rules and Heisenberg's uncertainty principles)? Or none of them actually exists without an observer?
So yes, coming back to the original question, wolves don't howl at the moon. They appear to be doing so at times when there's a human observer. But can we now claim that without any observer, their behaviour and howling are not impacted by la luna? It must be reminding you of this famous philosophical thought experiment: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
Now could it be a possibility that our ancestors intuitively sensed this selenic obscure link without any scientific study and the joke is actually on us? The short answer is no. The exact answer would be that it’s totally dependent on what constitutes as humour in one’s human paradigm may differ from another!
PhotoStory Date: 3.12.2020
Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh
Resource Credit and Citations: New Scientist article on Werewolf plant waits for the light of the full moon, Journal reference: Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0993, BBC feature on Mood-altering power of the moon by Linda Geddes, Can moonlight affect plant growth article written by Guido Masé, originally published by UrbanMoonshine, A note on the effect of the full moon on the activity of wild maned wolves by Chrysocyon Brachyurus, Orienting to polarized light at night — matching lunar skylight to performance in a nocturnal beetle.Journal of Experimental Biology, Published online January 28, 2019, doi:10.1242/jeb.188532,
K.S. Last et al.Moonlight drives ocean-scale mass vertical migration of zooplankton during the Arctic winter.Current Biology. Vol. 26, January 25, 2016, p. 244. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.038, Science News article on Moonlight shapes how some animals move, grow and even sing by Erin Wayman, Holly Root-Gutteridge's article on We learn more about our language by listening to wolves published on Aeon, Current Zoology study on Howl variations across Himalaya, North African, Indian, Holarctic wolf clades: tracing divergence in the world’s oldest wolf lineages using acoustics published online 2017 Feb 17.doi: 10.1093/cz/zox001, REPORT| VOLUME 23, ISSUE 15, P1485-1488, AUGUST 05, 2013 of Current Biology
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