To what extent can wolves understand human cues? Behavioral ecologist Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University set out to answer this question in a study published in iScience on January 16.
Prior research has demonstrated that both domesticated and non-domesticated animals have the ability to respond to human gestures in order to access food rewards, but these studies involved training, familiarity with the human, or both. Wheat’s study is different. “We remove all these factors, including the food reward, by focusing upon human-directed play with an unfamiliar person as a behavior exemplifying human-animal cooperation and animals’ ability to interpret human social cues,” the authors write in the paper. In this experiment, human-directed play meant a simple game of fetch.
Ten of the eight-week-old wolf puppies Wheat tested showed little to no interest in retrieving balls. But three pups from the same litter not only retrieved the balls but also responded to encouragement from unfamiliar people.
“When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball I literally got goose bumps,” says Wheat in a press release. “It was so unexpected, and I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication.”
H. Temrin, C.H. Wheat, “Intrinsic ball retrieving in wolf puppies suggests standing ancestral variation for human-directed play behavior,” iScience, doi:10.1016/j.isci.2019.100811, 2020.
Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com.
Correction (January 17): Christina Hansen Wheat’s first name was missing from the article. The Scientist regrets the error.