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Wolves and dogs could be using their eyes to speak

Two wolves playing, Photo by Marty Berezny, 2014

Two wolves playing, Photo by Marty Berezny, 2014


Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 11:31 AM -

If people make eye contact for more than a few seconds, it quickly becomes clear that someone may be trying to get a message across. But do wolves and dogs have the same communication habits as humans? A new study supports this possibility.

In a study recently published in the journal PLOS One, Japanese researchers analyzed the faces of 25 species of canidae from published photographs, books, and websites. The study found that species with the most social and pack-oriented behaviour had eyes that were easy to distinguish, and communication habits that involved holding a gaze for longer than usual.

The species were categorized into three groups based on the visibility of their eyes.

Group A
• Iris is lighter than pupil
• Eyes and eye outline are easy to locate, based on facial markings or patterns
• Species in this category include the coyote, golden jackal, and gray wolf

Group B
• Only the eye position is clear
• Pupils aren’t visible at all
• Species in this category include the dingo, kit fox, and maned wolf

Group C
• Both the eye position and the pupil are unclear
• No significant markings around the eye to distinguish it from the face
• Species in this category include bush dogs, African wild dogs, and tanukis

According to the study, A-type faces were commonly observed living in family groups year-round and hunting in packs. In contrast, B-type faces were often seen living solo, or as a bonded pair, and preferred hunting alone. Lastly, C-type faces also primarily hunted alone, despite living in social packs.

PLOS ONE: The relationship between facial color types and social/hunting behavior of the studied canid species.

PLOS ONE: The relationship between facial color types and social/hunting behavior of the studied canid species.

The experiments, designed by Japanese researchers Sayoko Ueda and Shiro Kohshima, compared gazing behaviours of gray wolves, fennec foxes, and bush dogs, at various zoos in Japan. In the study, gazing behaviour meant an animal kept its body still while fixing its face in the direction of another animal for more than one second. On average, the gray wolves (A-type species) held the longest “facial gaze-signal,” and the bush dogs (with typical C-type faces) held the shortest.

PLOS ONE: The duration time of gazing behaviors in the three observed species

PLOS ONE: The duration time of gazing behaviors in the three observed species

Unlike several other canid species, gray wolves have facial-colour patterns that make gaze direction easily to identify – just like humans. The study also found that the duration time of gazing behaviour with humans was longer in domestic dogs than in gray wolves. So the next time your dog stops to stare at you after walking in circles and sniffing the rug, perhaps it’s time to head outside for a bathroom break.

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