Wolves can follow a human’s gaze
When humans turned wolves into dogs, we created a social companion that keys in on our every move and look. That attentiveness was one of the big effects of domestication, some scientists have argued, and a clear difference between the two species. But wolves raised with humans also pay close attention to our actions and even follow our eye gaze, say two researchers. They even pass a gazing test that dogs fail.
The findings “seem to put a big nail in the coffin” of the dog-domestication theory, says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in social cognition. The results should also help researchers better understand the evolution of gazing abilities overall, say the authors of the new study.
Previous studies have concluded that wolves are not interested in human social cues and will not, for example, follow a pointing finger, even if that finger would lead them to food. By contrast, dogs seem to instantly grasp the connection. “For a dog, understanding pointing is a natural thing to do,” says Friederike Range, a cognitive ethologist at the University of Vienna and the lead author of the new study. “But how important is pointing to a wolf naturally?”
Because it’s not possible to test wild wolves’ abilities to follow a person’s gaze, Range and her co-author, Zsófia Virányi, a cognitive ethologist at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria, hand-raised nine wolf pups born in captivity. The pups were separated from their mothers 10 days after birth and bottle- and hand-fed for their first 5 months of life. In the ensuing months, the wolves continued to have daily social contact with humans and five adult dogs of various breeds, with which they developed close relationships. Like trainers raising dog puppies, the scientists gave the wolf pups intensive obedience training, teaching them to sit, lie down, roll over, and look into a person’s eyes.
When the pups were 14 weeks old, Range and Virányi tested their ability to follow the gaze of a person who turned her head and looked into the distance. Six of the pups passed, turning to look in the same direction only seconds after the person did. And at 23 weeks old, all the pups passed the test, the team reports online today in PLoS ONE.
Picture by Friederike Range
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