It also corroborates previous findings that wolves, at least those that are intensely socialized with humans, can also use that information, making them similar to dogs in that way, said Friederike Range, associate professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, and senior author of the study. This confirmation, she said, “is great since we need to make sure that we get the same results across different contexts and situations.”
The study also showed that wolves were more persistent in their search.
“If you think about wolves, they are hunters — and they’re actually not so successful so they have to be persistent to bring down prey,” Range said. “Dogs, on the other hand, even if you think about free-ranging dogs that have to fend for themselves, they very often live close to humans so there’s food offered at predictable times. So there might have been some relaxation during domestication, meaning dogs don’t need to be so persistent anymore.”
Animals seemed to use visual cues
In three separate experiments from 2009 to 2014, the researchers observed nine wolves and eight mongrel dogs search for food hidden by humans throughout a testing enclosure. The animals were able to watch as food was hidden in more than 130 possible locations, and then were let loose to retrieve their rewards.
Animals in the control group did not see the caches as they were hidden and had to rely only on scent.
The animals that watched the hiding process moved faster, traveled shorter distances before finding each cache and found more caches.
“Sense of smell is very important, but it costs a lot of energy to use the nose — at least, that’s what we see with our animals,” Range said. “It seems in most situations, if they have a visual cue, they will use a visual cue first.”
Wolves also took cues from humans
It’s not surprising that dogs take their cues from humans, experts say.
“In dogs, we’ve counted on them watching our behaviors. It’s part of how they were domesticated,” said Liz Stelow, chief of service at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “They watch our behaviors very intensely, and they also are often motivated by food. So if our behaviors have something to do with food, I think they do pay special attention.”
It is interesting that the wolves responded to humans in the same way as the dogs, “although it seems like an evolutionary intelligent thing to do,” said Katherine Houpt, emeritus professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “If you can remember where the food was, no matter who hid it — whether it was a human, another wolf or a cougar — you’re more likely to survive.”
The question, Houpt said, is whether this trait is inherited or learned. The wolves in the study were raised by humans, she said, and are more likely to follow human gestures than wild ones.
Other study limitations include a small sample size and, for the wolves, the environment. The testing enclosure was similar to what domesticated dogs are accustomed to, but wolves live in the wild where they are hunting — not simply finding — food, Stelow said.
“I think the study probably says more about dogs, overall, than it does about wolves,” she said.
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