Reconciliation in wolves
All animal species living in a group benefit if all individuals in the group can live in relative peace with each other. Different animal species have different ways of maintaining peace. One such way is post-conflict reconciliation (a term often referred to in English literature as “conflict reconciliation”). To learn more about atonement, wolves are an interesting species to study
The term reconciliation was introduced by De Waal and Roosmalen (1979), in a publication about a study they conducted on chimpanzees. Reconciliation was defined as friendly behavior between the individuals in a conflict, in the ten minutes after the conflict. In the years that followed, reconciliation has been demonstrated in many other animal species such as other primates (Aureli et al., 2002), goats (Schino, 1998), crows (Fraser & Bugnyar, 2011), hyenas (Wahaj et al., 2001), elephants (Plotnik et al., 2014), dogs (Cools et al, 2007) and wolves (Palagi & Cordoni, 2008; Palagi & Cordoni, 2009; Baan et al., 2014).
Wolves live in family groups and have so-called “tolerant dominance hierarchies”. This means that although there is a hierarchy, all individuals work together and that play behavior can take place between all individuals. This form of hierarchy is often found in animal species where there are many conflicts between groups, while there are few conflicts within one group, which in turn can lead to reconciliation behavior. This fact makes a wolf pack a very interesting species for reconciliation research. Reconciliation behavior in wolves is, for example, smelling each other’s noses, licking the mouth of another, seeking physical contact or inviting another to play. Several studies have shown that there does indeed appear to be reconciliation in wolves, but the mechanism behind it and its exact function is still unknown.
There are two functional hypotheses of reconciliation that are not mutually exclusive. The first possible explanation is that reconciliation behavior occurs when the wolves in the conflict have an important relationship. So the reconciliation behavior here is a way to mend the relationship (“make amends after an argument”). The second explanation is that reconciliation behavior is one way in which one wolf shows another that the conflict is over as far as he is concerned. So he shows friendly behavior which is a fair signal that the wolf is not going to attack again.
If these statements are true, then less aggressive behavior should occur after the reconciliation behavior. Research on wild wolves in Yellowstone National Park (Baan et al., 2014) failed to demonstrate this. They did find a correlation between the number of aggressive behaviors during the conflict and the number of friendly behaviors during the reconciliation, which indicates that the friendly behavior was indeed related to the conflict (and can therefore be called “reconciliation”). If the first statement is true, wolves in good relationships would be more likely to choose reconciliation than wolves in less good relationships. This was found in the study ban Baan et al. (2014), but it should be noted that the data on the interrelationships of the wolves was not collected independently. In short: the data to look at the behavior after the conflict was the same data on the basis of which the mutual relationships were determined. So more research is needed before these hypotheses can really be made plausible (or rejected).
A second way in which wolves deal with conflict is interference from a third individual. This will be in English ?? consolation ?? mentioned. In consolation, a wolf that was not involved in the conflict goes to the loser of the conflict and displays friendly behavior. This is akin to human comforting someone who is sad. The behavior may only be called consolidation if there is a reduction in stress on the part of the person receiving the consolidation. This immediately provides a plausible explanation for the behavior. The article by Baan et al. (2014) found friendly behavior from an outsider to the loser. However, no attention has been paid to any signs of stress and therefore it is not yet possible to speak with certainty about consolidation.
Since the article by De Waal and Roosmalen (1979) we can use words like reconciliation and consolation to describe these behaviors in a variety of species. Yet it is important to keep on guard against anthropomorphisms (the human interpretation of animal behavior). Much research will still have to be done in which, among other things, the function of reconciliation must become clear. Consideration must also be given to what factors wolves use to make decisions about their behavior after a conflict. Wolves seem to have certain cognitive abilities that until recently were only attributed to humans and non-human primates. The research into reconciliation paves the way to also consider abilities such as empathy and possibly a theory of mind. (think about what another thinks) in wolves.