Tag Archives: Wolf Science Centre

Gambling wolves take more risks than dogs

Would you rather get 100 euros for certain, or have a fifty-fifty chance of receiving either 200 euros or nothing? Most choose the first, as humans tend to be “risk-averse”, preferring a guaranteed pay-off over the possibility of a greater reward. It is thought that the human preference for “playing it safe” has evolved through natural selection: when you live precariously, like our remote ancestors, losing all your food reserves might be catastrophic, while adding to them might not make much difference to your chances of survival.

Wolf pups

Etu and Ela, two wolf pups at the Wolf Centre Photo credit: Rooobert Bayer

Here, in one of the first studies on risk preferences in animals other than primates, scientists show that wolves are consistently more prone to take risks when gambling for food than dogs. When faced with the choice between an insipid food pellet and a fifty-fifty chance of either tasty meat or an inedible stone, wolves nearly always choose the risky option, whereas dogs are more cautious.

“We compared the propensity to take risks in a foraging context between wolves and dogs that had been raised under the same conditions,” says Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute at the Veterinary University of Vienna and the Wolf Science Centre, Ernstbrunn, Austria, the study’s first author. “We found that wolves prefer the risky option significantly more often than dogs. This difference, which seems to be innate, is consistent with the hypothesis that risk preference evolves as a function of ecology.”

The study was done at the Wolf Science Centre, Ernstbrunn, Austria, a research institute where scientists study cognitive and behavioral differences and similarities between wolves and dogs. Here, wolves and dogs live in packs, under near-natural conditions within large enclosures.

Marshall-Pescini let each of 7 wolves and 7 dogs choose 80 times between two upside-down bowls, placed side-by-side on a movable table-top. The animals had been trained to indicate the bowl of their choice with their paw or muzzle, after which they would receive the item that was hidden beneath it.

The researchers had taught the wolves and dogs that beneath the first bowl, the “safe” option, was invariably an insipid food pellet, while beneath the second bowl, the “risky” option, was either an inedible item, a stone, in a random 50% of trials, and high-quality food, such as meat, sausage, or chicken, in the other 50%. As a control, the side for the “safe” and “risky” option changed between trials, but the animals were always shown which side corresponded to which option; whether they would get a stone or high-quality food if they chose the “risky” option was the only unknown. Rigorously designed control trials confirmed that the animals understood this rule, including the element of chance.

Wolves are much more prone to take risks than dogs, show the results. Wolves chose the risky option in 80% of trials, whereas dogs only did so in 58% of trials.

The researchers believe that dogs evolved a more cautious temperament after they underwent an evolutionary shift from their ancestral hunter lifestyle to their present scavenger lifestyle, which happened between 18,000 to 32,000 years ago when humans first domesticated dogs from wolves. Previous research has suggested that species that rely on patchily distributed, uncertain food sources are generally more risk-prone. For example, chimpanzees, which feed on fruit trees and hunt for monkeys, are more risk-prone than bonobos, which rely more on terrestrial vegetation, a temporally and spatially reliable food source.

“Wild wolves hunt large ungulates — a risky strategy, not only because hunts often fail, but also because these prey animals can be dangerous — whereas free-ranging dogs, which make up 80% of the world’s dog population, feed mostly by scavenging on human refuse, a ubiquitous, unlimited resource. So dogs no longer need to take risks when searching for food, and this may have selected for a preference to play if safe,” concludes Marshall-Pescini.

Source:  EurekAlert! media statement

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Dog-human cooperation is based on social skills of wolves

Dogs are man’s best friend and partner. The origins of this dog-human relationship were subject of a study, published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychology,  by behavioural scientists from the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna and the Wolf Science Center.

They showed that the ancestors of dogs, the wolves, are at least as attentive to members of their species and to humans as dogs are. This social skill did not emerge during domestication, as has been suggested previously, but was already present in wolves. 

Photo by the Wolf Science Center

Photo by the Wolf Science Center

Commonly accepted hypotheses about domestication suggest: “Dogs have become tolerant and attentive as a result of humans actively selecting for these skills during the domestication process in order to make dogs cooperative partners.”

Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the Unit of Comparative Cognition at the Messerli Research Institute question the validity of this view and have developed the “Canine Cooperation Hypothesis”. Their hypothesis states that since wolves already are tolerant, attentive and cooperative, the relationship of wolves to their pack mates could have provided the basis for today’s human-dog relationship. An additional selection, at least for social attentiveness and tolerance, was not necessary during canine domestication.

The researchers believe that wolves are not less socially attentive than dogs. Dogs however cooperate more easily with humans because they more readily accept people as social partners and more easily lose their fear of humans. To test their hypothesis, Range and Virányi examined the social attentiveness and tolerance of wolves and dogs within their packs and toward humans.

Various behavioural tests showed that wolves and dogs have quite similar social skills. Among other things, the researchers tested how well wolves and dogs can find food that has been hidden. Both wolves and dogs used information provided by a human to find the hidden food.

In another study, they showed that wolves followed the gaze of humans. To solve the task, the animals may need to be capable of making a mental representation of the “looker’s” perspective. Wolves can do this quite well. 

Another experiment gave dogs and wolves the chance to observe conspecifics as they opened a box. When it was the observer’s turn to do the same, the wolves proved to be the better imitators, successfully opening the box more often than dogs. “Overall, the tests showed that wolves are very attentive to humans and to each other. Hypotheses which claim that wolves have limited social skills in this respect in comparison to dogs are therefore incorrect,” Range points out. 

At the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn in Lower Austria, Range and Virányi investigated the social behaviour of dogs and wolves that grew up with members of their species and with humans. “The animals are socialized both with conspecifics and with humans. To be able to compare the behaviour of dogs and wolves and to investigate the effects of domestication, it is important that the animals live in the same conditions,” Virányi explains.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna media release

Read my other post about the Institute’s research with wolves here

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

The ability for dogs and wolves to learn

Wolves can learn from observing humans and pack members where food is hidden and recognize when humans only pretend to hide food, reports a study published for the first time in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers conclude that the ability to learn from other species, including humans, is not unique to dogs but was already present in their wolf ancestors. Prehistoric humans and the ancestors of dogs could build on this ability to better coordinate their actions.  Photo by Wolf Science Center

The researchers conclude that the ability to learn from other species, including humans, is not unique to dogs but was already present in their wolf ancestors. Prehistoric humans and the ancestors of dogs could build on this ability to better coordinate their actions. Photo by Wolf Science Center

These findings imply that when our ancestors started to domesticate dogs, they could have built on a pre-existing ability of wolves to learn from others, not necessarily pack members.

A paper published recently in the journal Science suggested that humans domesticated dogs about 18 thousand years ago, possibly from a European population of grey wolves that is now extinct. But it remains unknown how much the ability of dogs to communicate with people derives from pre-existing social skills of their wolf ancestors, rather than from novel traits that arose during domestication.

In a recent study, Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna investigated if wolves and dogs can observe a familiar “demonstrator” – a human or a specially trained dog – to learn where to look for food within a meadow. The subjects were 11 North American grey wolves and 14 mutts, all between 5 and 7 months old, born in captivity, bottle-fed, and hand-raised in packs at the Wolf Science Center of Game Park Ernstbrunn, Austria.

The wolves and dogs were two to four times more likely to find the snack after watching a human or dog demonstrator hide it, and this implies that they had learnt from the demonstration instead of only relying on their sense of smell. Moreover, they rarely looked for the food when the human demonstrator had only pretended to hide it, and this proves that they had watched very carefully.

The wolves were less likely to follow dog demonstrators to hidden food. This does not necessarily mean that they were not paying attention to dog demonstrators: on the contrary, the wolves may have been perceptive enough to notice that the demonstrator dogs did not find the food reward particularly tasty themselves, and so simply did not bother to look for it.

Source:  EurekAlert! press release