Why Do Wolves Tilt Their Heads?


Do dogs and wolves hear better when they tilt their heads? Do humans? (Reddit LifeProTips)

Use our resources to get some tips on teaching about wolves.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

mou-no download (dutcher wolf project, to be used only with those materials)
Why is this wolf pup tilting its head? Why aren’t you?
Photograph by Jim and Jamie Dutcher

Discussion Ideas

  • Why do dogs, wolves, and other canids tilt their heads when listening?
    • Canids tilt their heads to determine the vertical placement of a sound—how far up/down it is. Head-tilting and vertical placement of sound help canids hunt in two different situations.
      • First, it helps canids hunt prey right in front of them, such as a hare scrambling in the underbrush. “The head tilt offsets the two ears vertically so that sounds from lower down will hit the lower ear first, and will also be ever-so-slightly louder in the lower ear, and vice versa for sounds coming from higher up.”
      • Second, it helps canids hunt prey that is beneath their feet—a rodent burrowing in snow or soil, for instance. “When looking down at a flat surface, ‘up/down’ relative to the axis of the canid’s skull gives canids information on how near/far the prey is.”
      • FYI: Canids, like most mammals, already have an excellent sense of the horizontal placement of sound—how far left or right it is. The placement of their ears on either side of their heads lets them determine the horizontal placement of sound by how loud or quickly a sound reaches each of their ears.



  • Do other animals have similar adaptations to the canid head-tilt? Read the short Reddit piece for some help.
    • Yes, and they’re awesome! “Aerial predators that routinely hunt by sound, like owls, actually have a ‘head tilt’ permanently built in. Their skulls are asymmetrical—one ear is a little higher than the other (like this). Thus, they get good information on sound localization immediately, without having to do the head-tilt behavior.”


  • What is the difference between the canid adaptation and the owl adaptation?
    • Head-tilting, the canid method of determining vertical placement, is a behavioral adaptation. The asymmetrical alignment of an owl’s ears is a structural adaptation, which describes a physical or biological change (mutation) that helps an organism survive in its environment.


  • Why don’t people use the head-tilt to hear better? Do we have asymmetrical owl-ears?
    • No, it turns out we have some fantastic external ear flaps, called pinnae. Almost all of our up/down localization is done using the complex and intricate divots and curlicues of our ears. High-frequency sound waves are bounced around differently than low-frequency sound waves—we don’t have to use the head-tilt method or have asymmetrical owl ears to hear as well as wolves and owls. Here’s to ears!



LifeProTips: Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads When Listening?

Nat Geo: Gray Wolf Educator Guide

Nat Geo: What is an adaptation?

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Boreal Owl ears — not a matched pair

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