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This is a subsidiary question to Shapeshifters - Shared language between human and animal forms There is some of background information in that question, but none of it is critical for this question.

See also Phonetic overlap between humans and wolves for the vocal version of this question.


Body language is an alternative to form of communication to vocalization, and is widely used by many animal species, including humans.

Consider a group of shapeshifters capable of transforming between a human form and a wolf form of equal intelligence.

Some forms of body language transfer reasonably well across these forms:

  • Eye movement / eye pointing
  • Facial expressions
  • Posture

Due to differences in body structure, other body language does not transfer quite as well:

  • For humans: Arm movements and gestures
  • For wolves: Ear and tail posture

Are there any obvious overlaps in compatible (or incompatible) body language that I have missed here?

Additional considerations:

  • Are there any practical (e.g. viable not just when standing still in a controlled environment, but also while running through a forest) ways to map between these incompatible body languages? Primitive example: arm inclination directly maps to tail inclination; hand inclination directly maps to ear inclination. This is obviously a bit inconvenient.
  • Human facial expressions can communicate a widely nuanced array of emotions. Is there any reputable evidence that wolf expressions can cover a similar range?
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Humans and dogs can understand each other's body language, and dogs are a subspecies of wolf. How much of it is actually common though? To the extent that body language mimes actual behavior, it might be common in some sense while differing in detail. That is, a social animal with a theory of mind can tell that another animal is (e.g.) "trying to pay attention to something sensed faintly" while actual details differ between species.

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On a more meta level, dogs can read lots of human body language, and do so because in a domestic setting the human is the "Alpha dog" of its pack. For a social animal like a dog, knowing and responding to the Alpha is critical to survival in the pack.

Wolves, not being domesticated, won't instinctively know and understand human body language (and even puppies need to be taught, much of the training regime is to socialize a puppy to perform in the new "pack"), but being intelligent pack animals, they can certainly learn.

The biggest issue in this scenario is "when" do the wolf/wolves come into contact with the humans? A fully developed pack will naturally defer to the Alpha wolf, not you. Becoming the Alpha of a wolf pack literally involves fighting and replacing the existing Alpha, and you will have to be constantly alert for challenges to your position as Alpha afterwards. Raising a pack of wolves from puppyhood will make this much simpler, they have always known you to be the Alpha.

Humans can also read the body languages of dogs, including facial expressions, ear and tail positioning, the posture and even the bristling of the fur. Wolves share that body language, and a person with enough empathy and sensitivity can certainly sense the moods of their animals and react appropriately. Once again, raising the wolf pack from puppyhood will make the process easier, since as the Alpha human, you will have observed the animals from birth.

Directly communicating with a system of hand signals like soldiers do in the field is possible with lots of training, but this is actually artificial, and certainly would be unique to the pack you are handling. Even if there is a common system of hand signals that all humans agree to use, another pack is not necessarily going to respond to you. Among deaf people, regional variations and even "accents" have been observed among users of sign language, and there is no reason to suppose something like that won't happen with training and controlling hand signs as well.

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In a controlled situation you can have a well developed sign language based on tail/ear corresponding to arm/hand.

In a hunting or running situation the ways to communicate are:

A1) One species talks and the other listens. If the other species wants to input they nod/shake head and use other simple gestures (wag tail/shake arm "happy/good idea", drop tail/frown "sad/bad idea", drop head and ears/raise hand "stop", push head forward/point "go", run in a curve/circle/revolve hand "turn back") The problem is it limits communication quite a lot and risks one species becoming a lower class as they have limited communication. This should be an emergency form of communication for humans or wolves too injured to sign.

A2) The fairer way is to both use signs but this limits communications a lot as only a few signs can be done while running. See list above for a few.

B)Some kind of morse code for when still would work quite well. humans tap foot and wolves thump tail/tap paw. Could be done when running through blinks although this is hard to read or by making a click sound with the tongue. This is very fair but slow so not good in high pressure as words must be spelt.

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