Wolves care about their mates. Dogs, not so much


Touchscreen test shows wolves are far more cooperative than their domesticated relatives. Andrew Masterson reports.


A wolf, using a touchscreen to order food for its pack-mate.

Dale, et al

Wolves are much more likely than dogs to provide food to members of their group, an experiment involving touchscreens has shown.

For animals that operate in packs – such as wolves (Canis lupus) and, ancestrally at least, their close relatives, dogs (Canis familiaris) – cooperation is an important trait. However, its evolutionary origin is obscure.

Researchers led by Rachel Dale from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, decided to investigate whether dogs – the product of thousands of years of domestication – had retained, or even improved, the ability to consider the needs of pack members.

In play were two competing hypotheses. One suggested that wolves need to be cooperative – “prosocial”, in the jargon – because of their wild, pack-hunting lives, while domestic dogs, dependent on human agency, do not.

The other held that traits such as intelligence and cooperation with both humans and other dogs are precisely the things that have been deliberately amplified by the domestication process, and so dogs should be more prosocial than their wild relatives.

To find out which idea was right, Dale and colleagues conducted a series of experiments.

Before doing so, however, a mob of mutts and several captive packs of wolves (which live at a special facility at the university) had to be taught to use a touchscreen by pressing it with their noses. Then the animals were placed in enclosures, each with an identical enclosure adjacent.

By pressing the touchscreen, the animal in the first space could deliver food to an animal in the second. The frequency with which this happened, Dale and colleagues reasoned, served as a measure of prosociality – the willingness to assist an individual, such that the group remained at optimum numbers and strength.

The results showed that the wolves were far more helpful than the dogs. Wolves paired with foodless pack-mates would frequently push the touchscreen and send sustenance into the next enclosure. If the neighbouring animal was a dog, or an unrelated wolf, however, the behaviour stopped.

The dogs showed no interest in the hunger of neighbours, regardless of species or relationship. However, they showed no hesitation in using the touchscreens when the protocol was tweaked and the process resulted in food delivered to their own enclosure.

The results, the authors write, provide a clear demonstration that prosociality persists in wolves but has largely disappeared among dogs – even wild ones.

“Wolves extensively rely on cooperation for many aspects of their lives including breeding, hunting, and territory defence,” they write.

“Dogs, on the other hand, cooperate less than wolves in free-ranging settings, usually foraging solitarily and raising offspring alone.”

The research is published in the journal PLOS One.

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  1. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.021544
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