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Grey wolves (Canis lupus) discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar human voices


The ability to discriminate between different individuals based on identity cues, which is important to support the social behaviour of many animal species, has mostly been investigated in conspecific contexts. A rare example of individual heterospecific discrimination is found in domestic dogs, who are capable of recognising their owners’ voices. Here, we test whether grey wolves, the nearest wild relative of dogs, also have the ability to distinguish familiar human voices, which would indicate that dogs’ ability is not a consequence of domestication. Using the habituation–dishabituation paradigm, we presented captive wolves with playback recordings of their keepers’ and strangers’ voices producing either familiar or unfamiliar phrases. The duration of their response was significantly longer when presented with keepers’ voices than with strangers’ voices, demonstrating that wolves discriminated between familiar and unfamiliar speakers. This suggests that dogs’ ability to discriminate between human voices was probably present in their common ancestor and may support the idea that this is a general ability of vertebrates to recognise heterospecific individuals. Our study also provides further evidence for familiar voice discrimination in a wild animal in captivity, indicating that this ability may be widespread across vertebrate species.

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The datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available at the following address:


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We would like to thank Enrique Font and Pau Carazo for their support at the Cavanilles Institute of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology. We thank “Centro del Lobo Ibérico Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente”, “La Grandera”, “Centro de Naturaleza Cañada Real”, “Centro de Education Ambiental La Dehesa” and “Lobo Park” for making possible the study realization. DR and HRG were supported by BBSRC grant BB/P00170X/1 (How dogs hear us) and DR was also supported by the University of Lyon IDEXLYON project as part of the ‘Programme Investissements d’Avenir’ (ANR-16-IDEX-0005). We would also like to thank the three reviewers whose helpful comments substantially improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Beatrice Gammino.

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Beatrice Gammino was supported by the Erasmus traineeship program of the University of Turin. David Reby and Holly Root-Gutteridge were supported by BBSRC grant BB/P00170X/1 (How dogs hear us) and David Reby was also supported by the University of Lyon IDEXLYON project as part of the ‘Programme Investissements d’Avenir’ (ANR-16-IDEX-0005). The authors have no financial or proprietary interests in any material discussed in this article.

Ethical approval

All the institutions hosting the animals granted permission to conduct this study. Playbacks were always emitted from outside the enclosures without invasive or exceptional manipulation of the subjects and wolves were monitored for any signs of stress. If any had been observed, the study would have been suspended. The care of the wolves adhered to the guidelines of the European Endangered Species Program, developed by the European Association and Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). We collected consent forms for all the individuals who contributed recordings of their voices we then used during the experiments. Due to the absence of potential discomfort for the wolves (e.g., separation of the animals during the playbacks, direct contact with humans), the study did not require approval from the Ethics Committee of the Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology of the University of Torino at the time the experiments were performed.

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Gammino, B., Palacios, V., Root-Gutteridge, H. et al. Grey wolves (Canis lupus) discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar human voices. Anim Cogn 26, 1589–1600 (2023).

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