AboutZoos, Since 2008


Wolves are bet­ter at learn­ing from each other than dogs

pub­lished 01 Feb­ru­ary 2014 | mod­i­fied 25 Decem­ber 2014

Although wolves and dogs are closely related, they show some strik­ing dif­fer­ences. Sci­en­tists from the Messerli Research Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of Vet­eri­nary Med­i­cine, Vienna have under­taken exper­i­ments that sug­gest that wolves observe one another more closely than dogs and there­fore are bet­ter at learn­ing from one another. The sci­en­tists believe that coop­er­a­tion among wolves is the basis of the under­stand­ing between dogs and humans. Their find­ings have been pub­lished on 29 Jan­u­ary in the jour­nal PLOS ONE.

Grey wolfWolves were domes­ti­cated more than 15,000 years ago and it is widely assumed that the abil­ity of domes­tic dogs to form close rela­tion­ships with humans stems from changes dur­ing the domes­ti­ca­tion process. But the effects of domes­ti­ca­tion on the inter­ac­tions between the ani­mals have not received much atten­tion. The point has been addressed by Friederike Range and Zsó­fia Virányi, two mem­bers of the Uni­ver­sity of Vet­eri­nary Med­i­cine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) who work at the Wolf Sci­ence Cen­ter (WSC) in Ern­st­brunn, Niederösterreich.

Wolves copy other wolves solv­ing prob­lems
The sci­en­tists found that wolves are con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than dogs at open­ing a con­tainer, pro­vid­ing they have pre­vi­ously watched another ani­mal do so. Their study involved 14 wolves and 15 mon­grel dogs, all about six months old, hand-​reared and kept in packs. Each ani­mal was allowed to observe one of two sit­u­a­tions in which a trained dog opened a wooden box, either with its mouth or with its paw, to gain access to a food reward. Sur­pris­ingly, all of the wolves man­aged to open the box after watch­ing a dog solve the puz­zle, while only four of the dogs man­aged to do so. Wolves more fre­quently opened the box using the method they had observed, whereas the dogs appeared to choose ran­domly whether to use their mouth or their paw.

Their skill at copy­ing prob­a­bly relates to the fact that wolves are more depen­dent on coop­er­a­tion with con­specifics than dogs are and there­fore pay more atten­tion to the actions of their partners
Friederike Range, Messerli Research Insti­tute — Uni­ver­sity of Vienna, and Wolf Sci­ence Cen­ter — Ern­st­brunn, Austria »

Pow­ers of obser­va­tion
To exclude the pos­si­bil­ity that six-​month old dogs fail the exper­i­ment because of a delayed phys­i­cal or cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment, the researchers repeated the test after nine months. The dogs proved no more adept at open­ing the box than they were at a younger age. Another pos­si­ble expla­na­tion for the wolves’ appar­ent supe­ri­or­ity at learn­ing is that wolves might sim­ply be bet­ter than dogs at solv­ing such prob­lems. To test this idea, the researchers exam­ined the ani­mals’ abil­ity to open a box with­out prior demon­stra­tion by a dog. They found that the wolves were rarely suc­cess­ful. “Their problem-​solving capa­bil­ity really seems to be based on the obser­va­tion of a dog per­form­ing the task,” says Range. “The wolves watched the dog very closely and were able to apply their new knowl­edge to solve the prob­lem. Their skill at copy­ing prob­a­bly relates to the fact that wolves are more depen­dent on coop­er­a­tion with con­specifics than dogs are and there­fore pay more atten­tion to the actions of their partners.”

The researchers think that it is likely that the dog-​human coop­er­a­tion orig­i­nated from coop­er­a­tion between wolves. Dur­ing the process of domes­ti­ca­tion, dogs have become able to accept humans as social part­ners and thus have adapted their social skills to include inter­ac­tions with them, con­comi­tantly los­ing the abil­ity to learn by watch­ing other dogs.

(Source: Vetmeduni Vienna press release, 30.01.2014)

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