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WA: When wolves solve problems, their bond matters more than their smarts

Cooperation wins again

Jaime Chambers Anthropology Washington State University

Two wolves press their noses against a fence, scenting a tray of food on the other side. A rope dangles within their reach — a clue to the puzzle. If only one wolf pulls the rope, it comes loose and no one gets the food. But if they tug together, the snack will be theirs.

This might seem like a test of plain-old smarts. Put two good problem-solvers together, and they can figure it out. But according to a recent study published in Nature, the wolves’ bond with each other — rather than either individual’s intent or mental abilities — matters most. 

Wolves cooperate famously well. They coordinate to tackle large prey in the wild, and outperform dog duos in experiments requiring teamwork. But individual wolves’ cooperative abilities vary, and researchers at the University of Vienna’s Wolf Science Center wondered why.

To find out, they presented wolf pairs with three tasks designed to measure cooperation. In the rope test, each duo coordinated to get a meaty morsel. In the other two tests, wolves made choices with no reward to themselves. They pushed a touch screen to give their partner a reward (or not), and took turns pushing a buzzer that sometimes gave both a snack, and sometimes only their partner. 

The wolves’ social bond most strongly shaped their success, not any particular individual quality

 Researchers also measured each wolf’s individual traits, such as self-control, learning speed, persistence, and understanding of cause-and-effect. When it came to cooperating, these qualities didn’t matter so much. The wolves’ social bond most strongly shaped their success, not any particular individual quality. The more positive the prior relationship between two wolves, the better they performed on all three tasks.  

Scientists are still learning what drives cooperation in many species, but many hypothesize that “emotional bookkeeping” plays a role. When individuals share positive experiences, they tend to associate each other with positive emotions. A mental record of good vibes makes cooperation more likely, as an automatic first response. 

This study supports that idea. Wolves that feel good about each other cooperate better. The same has been found in humans, too — something to consider the next time you’re faced with a group project.