Wolf Puppies Play Fetch, An Act Reminiscent of Canine Domestication

swedish zoologists identified playful behavior in eight-week-old wolf pups

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

Zoologists have seen young wolves playing fetch with strangers, according to NPR. During standard behavior tests, scientists observed the pups retrieving thrown objects at the throwers’ requests. The behavior is expected in dogs, but not wolves.

Wolf puppies playing in the grass
Scientists have observed domesticated canine-like behaviors in modern wolves while studying their behaviors as young wolf pups. Photo by Wolf Mountain Images / Shutterstock

NPR reported that scientists were shocked to see wolf pups, which lack the 14,000 or so years of domestication that dogs have experienced, playing fetch with people they had never met. The event happened during a study of canine domestication.

“To try to get clues about how [domestication in dogs] happened, scientists such as Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University in Sweden have been studying the differences between dogs and modern wolves,” the article said. “As part of her work, she raised litters of wolf puppies, feeding them and acclimating them to her presence but not playing with them or training them.”

When the pups were eight weeks old, they were given several behavioral tests by newcomers and, surprisingly, started behaving like their distant, domesticated cousins. Canid evolution takes many forms.

The 14,000-Year Best Friendship

“The modern wolf species hasn’t changed very much from the ancient wolf that is the most probable common ancestor of modern wolves and domestic dogs,” said Dr. Donald E. Moore III, Director of the Oregon Zoo and Senior Science Adviser at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “The earliest known archaeological evidence for domestication of canids comes from a single canine jawbone discovered in a human double grave dating back some 14,000 years. Similar finds from elsewhere in Europe and the Near East date back 8,000 and 11,000 years ago.”

According to Dr. Moore, this places the domestication of dogs before that of any other animal and even before plant agriculture, likely beginning with hunter-gatherers capturing and raising wolf pups as their own and training them to hunt alongside their human owners. However, the relationship between humans and wolves is far from carefree.

“While tame wolves—or dogs—have become our best friends, wild wolves have been hated and persecuted because they sometimes hunt farm animals and compete with humans for deer and other game species,” Dr. Moore said. “Wolves really can kill large numbers of domestic animals, but their threats to humans are largely overrated and the stuff of fairy tales.”

A Social Keystone Species

Wolves, Dr. Moore said, are social species, traveling in packs of five to eight. They’re also defined in a different light with regards to their environment.

“Wolves are considered a keystone species,” he said. “They, like other apex predators, help to control their prey species, so [they] have large effects on the environment in which they live. Wolves and other keystone species influence their ecosystems directly and indirectly, controlling numbers of their prey—prey that otherwise have effects on the plant and animal species in the trophic levels below them in the food web within that ecosystem.”

“For example, when wolf numbers were thinned out by hunters in the American West, returning elk populations ate such large amounts of vegetation near creek beds that it led to severely reduced shade in and around the creeks,” Dr. Moore said. “This disruption of ecological processes resulted in increased creek temperatures that reduced the numbers of trout and other cold water fish in the creeks. These top-down effects show how important apex predators can be for the health of their ecosystems.”

Since most of us adjust our perspectives to the scope of a lifetime, the 14,000-year domestication of dog species from ancient wolves can be hard to imagine. However, Stockholm University’s wolf pups may have just lent some clarity to the idea.

Dr. Donald E. Moore, III, Ph.D.

Dr. Donald E. Moore III contributed to this article. Dr. Moore is Director of the Oregon Zoo and Senior Science Adviser at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. He earned a bachelors degree in Wildlife Management and Zoology and a doctoral degree in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 493 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at lupshaj@teachco.com