Scent Marking

Chorus howling by a wolf pack threatens potential intruders, telling them to steer clear of their territory or be challenged. Wolves howl as a group whenever they hear the howl of another pack. In general, wolves tend to reply more often when they have something to defend, such as a fresh kill or a den housing pups.

"Social" howling, on the other hand, promotes and maintains pack cohesion. When a pack awakens from sleep they usually stretch, urinate and defecate, nose each other, get excited, and frequently break into a group howl. 

Group howling is accompanied by growling, whining, ritualistic display and domination, including pinning. In unmistakable friendly play, pack mates often chase each other around. Whether the group howl precedes or follows intense socializing, it's a manifestation of excitement or, according to wolf biologist David Mech, simply a way for each wolf to remind the others it's present at the social get-together. 

As with humans, each wolf's voice is unique. No two wolves anywhere sound exactly alike. 




Photo Source:

Visual Signals


Body language is one of the wolf's most important communication tools. According to wolf biologist David Mech, one of the most useful expressions of an alpha (top ranking) wolf is the "fixed stare." A way of controlling pack members, the fixed stare of an alpha often results in subordinate wolves cringing, turning and slinking away.

Dominant and subordinate posturing are crucial in maintaining order and social structure within a wolf pack. This posturing continually reinforces who's who and solidifies each wolf's particular place and purpose within the pack. In addition to fixed stares, alpha wolves continually dominate subordinates by aggressive threats and often, by actually pinning them to the ground with their jaws. In response, subordinate wolves fawn in front of alphas, letting them know they are no threat to their high ranking positions.​

The photo diagram below, from Of Wolves And Men by Barry Holstun Lopez,  illustrates an intense moment between a dominant 10-year-old male (on the left) and a yearling female (on the right).

Photo Source: National Geographic

Wolves have two methods of scent marking:

  • Urination
  • Defecation

Urination serves three purposes:

  • Maintaining territory
  • Courtship bonding and breeding
  • Marking empty food caches

Wolves urinate and defecate throughout their territory to maintain it, marking its boundaries clearly to neighboring wolf packs as well as dispersers (lone wolves). Lower ranking females squat and lower ranking males stand on all fours. Raised-leg urination is reserved for the alpha male, and sometimes, the alpha female. The raised-leg positioning elevates the urine off the ground onto conspicuous scent posts including logs,, sticks, rocks, ice chunks and snow banks. This seems to maximize its "advertising power."​ 

Wolves raised-leg urinate mostly in key travel spots around their territory. A pack's area will have a preponderance of scent marks around trail junctions. According to David Mech, there are twice as many scent marks around the edges of a wolf pack's territory than there are in the centers. On average, wolves raised-leg urinate along trails about every 300 yards in the winter time. Some preliminary evidence suggests the marks can be detected for up to two weeks.

The map (to the right) of hypothetical scent mark distribution around a wolf pack territory, taken from David Mech's The Way Of The Wolf, indicates the relative frequency and distribution of the marks. Mech explains that any given wolf pack territory is usually surrounded by several other wolf territories in a network of trails. Wolves tend to mark more along established trails than whe just traveling for the first time off a trail. Each dark spot on the map represents a scent mark. Lighter symbols indicate a different pack.

Wolves increase their rate of scent marking as breeding season approaches. Alpha females scent mark much more during this period than at any other time. Courtship and preparation for breeding is often evident by a double urine mark on a snow bank, which is part of the bonding ceremony of the alpha pair. Double marking increases as breeding season approaches. Newly formed pairs double mark at a higher rate than established wolf pairs. David Mech hypothesizes that chemicals in the urine of each sex help tell the other how ready it is to copulate and that the presence of double marks probably also informs other pack members and any strange wolves passing through the area that the pair has bonded. 

Wolves also urinate to mark empty food caches. This is presumably to tell pack mates the spot is empty and not to bother looking for food there. Related uses of urination, still not fully understood by wolf biologists, include the alpha wolf urinating on carcasses (food) that it has not killed. Captive wolves urinate on carcasses and chunks of food provided for them and wild wolves urinate on food they've found but don't want to eat. 

Wolves also scent mark using their feces. They have complex scent glands just inside the anus. When the anus releases a scat (wolf feces), secretions pass out and coat each side of the scat.

A wolf pack's territory is dotted with olfactory "hot spots," as David Mech calls them. Consequently, any pack wolf is assured that it's in its own territory or knows when it's about to leave it. Similarly, any strange wolf knows when it's trespassing. 

Annoyance on the part of the older male is revealed by:​

          1. Partial erection of his tail

          2. Raising of his hackles

          3. Forward movement of ears

          4. Vertical retraction of lips

The subordinate female indicates acquiescence by:

          5. Flattening of her ears

          6. Flashing of white of her eyes

          7. Appeasement mouth gesture (called licking intension)

          8. General lowering of her body

​          9 Raising of her paw​​

A wolf's face and tail are important body parts in the use of language. Taken from R. D. Lawrence's Trail of the Wolf, typical facial expressions and tail positions are illustrated below.




Wolves are extremely social. A wolf's family, its pack, is the very center of its existence.  Because of this, wolves have evolved intricate methods of communication. Basically, they communicate with each other and the world in three ways:

  • Visual signals
  • Vocalizations
  • Scent marking​​​

Wolves whimper, growl, bark and squeak but howling is their best known method of vocal communication. Wolves howl for a number of reasons:

  • ​To assemble their pack
  • To threaten potential intruders
  • To "socialize"

Wolves have to reassemble their packs after they've split up chasing prey over a large area, when one or more pack members have left the den site to go hunting, and when they've become separated in a forest or other area where they can't see each other.



Double urine marks in snow bank taken from The Way Of The Wolf​ by David Mech