Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves 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 color-blindness (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. This curious fiction has become so quotidian that even The New Yorker’s legendary fact checkers let “a long, lamenting howl at the orange moon” slide into print without a second thought.
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 extraordinary 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 even been suggested that wolves howl to confuse enemies and prey. Traveling on horseback in Texas, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant once heard howling and figured there were 20 wolves; it turned out there were only two. “Seated upon their haunches, with their mouths close together, they had made all the noise we had been hearing for the past 10 minutes,” he wrote in his memoir.
But even more interesting, I think, are the emotional rationales that have been put forth for howling—that it expresses restlessness, anxiety, stress, frustration, loneliness, and excitement. The more I learn about wolves, the more complex and human-like they seem to become (or, conversely, the more wolf-like we become). 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 (and it doesn’t even include my favorite: because they like to howl), 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 here: “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. Even earlier, in Roman antiquity, Pliny the Elder recorded a skeptical account of lycanthropy in his Natural History. 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.
Nevertheless, knowing the truth doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate the fun of an image so loaded with romantic symbolism it can cause a terrible T-shirt to become aviral sensation. Our understanding of wolves has always blended biology with human projection. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
This article was posted to the blog, “Slate“, on April 14, 2014.