Wolves are considered unusually intelligent animals because their packs seem to use complex communication and strategy. But a computer simulation reveals even the most complicated hunting pattern can be explained by two instinctual behaviors. This is bad news for animal intelligence.
Between this and the recent research suggesting most wolves are lazy freeloaders, it seems scientists are just piling on our lupine friends. First we discovered that all but four of the wolves in any pack don't actually contribute to the hunt, and now it turns out those four wolves who do work might just be following a pair of stupidly simple rules.
If you observe how a wolf pack hunts, it certainly seems like intelligence has to be involved. Many packs will effectively set traps for their prey, as most of the wolves chase their kill right into the path of another wolf. That suggests some pretty nifty thinking about positioning and future movement, both of which seem like they should require some major brainpower.
To test that, Raymond Coppinger and his research team at Hampshire College in Massachusetts created a simulation in which five wolves hunted prey by following just two rules. Each wolf would move closer and closer to its prey until it reached a certain safe distance, and then it would start moving away as any other wolf reached that same distance. Those two rules governed the entirety of the simulated wolf pack's movements.
Remarkably, the simulation behaved almost exactly like a real wolf pack. The simulated wolves would encircle their prey, and if the prey tried to circle around and escape, one of the wolves would start moving to maintain the correct distance from its fellow wolves. The geometry of all that works out so that this wolf would often end up right in the path of the escaping prey, creating a deadly ambush quite unintentionally.
Obviously, this simulation can't tell us whether wolves really do just obey those two rules or something like them in order to hunt. But if all pack hunting really is instinctual and doesn't require any communication between wolves, then that really changes our understanding of the species. We had previously assumed that packs require fairly sophisticated social interaction and communication, but even wolves in packs might actually be lone wolves after all.
That greatly reduces their potential for intelligence, and it also means wolves fit better with some of their closest cousins like jackals and coyotes. Those creatures generally prefer to hunt alone, but they will form packs if their prey is clustered close together. It's possible that the exact same principle operates with wolves, only their prey is far more likely to be tightly concentrated, which means wolves are more likely to form packs.
So, it appears wolves aren't just lazy...they're also dumb. This year's scientific breakthroughs must be wreaking absolute havoc on wolf self-esteem.
Photo by Chris Alcock via Shutterstock