Are Wolves Really Howling at the Moon?

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Mythology and the imagination of the masses have created a popular belief that there is some sort of connection between wolves and the moon—that when the wild canines howl, it’s directly and deliberately at the Earth’s natural satellite. It’s a romantic concept, for sure—one we certainly enjoy telling the kids—but hardly the case in reality. The presence of the moon when a wolf howls, as it turns out, is purely coincidental and circumstantial.

“Canine experts have found no connection between the phases of the moon and wolf howling,” writes Animal Planet. “Wolves pipe up more often during the night because they're nocturnal. But why do they point their faces toward the moon and stars when they howl? It's all about acoustics, since projecting their calls upward allows the sound to carry farther.”

While communication is the main motivator, wolves howl for a variety of reasons within that scope. PBS recorded the various pitches and situational howls, from the “lonesome wolf” cry to the “confrontational” call. The purposes include relaying location (between rival packs as well as within their own), warning each other of impending danger, and, in the case of the infamous “chorus” howls, fibbing to rivals about the size of their pack. A small group of wolves howling together can sound like a large group, keeping rival packs in the dark about their true size—just like a bluff in the game of poker.

So how did this whole moon-howling rumor start? Like many good tales, it starts and ends with our elders—the general consensus is that it stems from Native American art and mythology.

“Many ancient civilizations stretching back to the Neolithic Age continually paired wolves with the moon in images and literature, which eventually evolved into today's popular belief,” according to Animal Planet. “Hecate, Greek goddess of the moon, kept the company of dogs. Same thing goes for Diana, Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt. Norse mythology tells of a pair of wolves that chase the moon and sun to summon night and day. The Native American Seneca tribes believe that a wolf sung the moon into existence.”