Gaze following abilities in wolves (Canis lupus)

Range, F. & Viranyi, Zs. (2011) Gaze following abilities in wolves (Canis lupus). PLoS ONE 6(2): e16888. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016888

Project Cognitive abilities and emotional background in the development of cooperation
Authors Friederike Range & Zsófia Virányi
Year of publication 2011
Journal PLoS ONE

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Aragorn and Kaspar look for what is capturing the attention of Bolita Photo: Kurt Kotrschal
Aragorn and Kaspar look for what is capturing the attention of Bolita

Where are you looking at? What do you see? Animals, who follow the gazes of others, thereby ge important informations about social interactions and for their survival. Simultaneously  an animal can deduct  the next action of a partner by the looking direction of the partner and what he sees and thus react accordingly to it. Thereby scientist distinguish between the following a gaze into the far and the following a gaze round a barrier.

Following the gaze into the far is a relative simple cognitive mechanism - a presumptive inborn pre-disposition for the orientation with others, which was enhanced by associative learning. Accordingly to that many different animal species are able to follow the gaze of others into the far. But only a few species master the gaze-following around a barrier; it's proven only for ravens, hominids and a few other monkey species. In this case the animal has to go round a barriere to see, whereto the partner on the other side was looking. That's much more complexe.

We investigated the gaze behaviour in wolves at the Wolf Science Center recently. The ability to follos a gaze around a barrier is said to be found particularly in very competitive and cooperative animal species. For this wolves are almost prototypical. They raise together their offsprings, hunt concertedly and also defend their territory together. The results, published in the journal PLoS ONE, confirm that our nine wolves follow the gaze of humans already at the age of 14 weeks.  Six months old they followed both - the gaze of their conspecifics and of humans around a barrier.

Several investigation assume, that  the gaze -following into the far and around barriers underlie different cognitive mechanisms. The results of this study support this theory. Our wolves followed the gaze of others around a barrier three months later than the gaze into the far. In addition they stopped in the case of a barrier after two to three repetitions of the gaze to view the other side more exactly. However, if a demonstrator repeatedly gazed into the far, the wolves looked time and again, if something yet could be seen - even after 10 such repetitions.

Investigations on the insight of an animal into the mental world of a conspecific counts to the great topics in cognitive science. Following the gaze of a conspecific is a first step to the "Theory of mind", i.e. the recognition, that conspecifics also have their own knowledge and intentions, which can differ from the own.