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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:


Consider a group of shapeshifters capable of transforming between a human form and a wolf form of equal intelligence. Compatibility of body language and vocalizations have been discussed in the above questions.

However, a significant portion of wolf communication is also done through scent:

  • Identification - "Who are you"
  • Mood and reproductive state
  • Marking territory - "X was here"

While humans also use scent for communication, it is to a much lesser extent to wolves, and not really on a conscious level.

Given this, what alternatives might a group of human-wolf shapeshifters develop for expressing this information in a way that is compatible with both human and wolf forms.

Marking is an especially significant element, as it needs to be reproducible by both humans and wolves, perceptible by both humans and wolves, and persist for some amount of time.

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Why are you assuming humans and wolves have to use exactly the same signs? It is possible for wolves to identify humans by scent even if humans do not sense it. On the opposite it is possible for humans to identify wolves by their senses (e.g. learn to identify their faces) even if wolves don't do that themselves. In fact we both do that everyday (unless you have no pet at home).

To have territories marked in universally comprehensible way, humans would need to learn physical (visual) signs left by wolves and if leaving own signs is needed they should be done in non-verbal way. Even if signs left by wolves and humans were different both would learn to recognize both.

I suggest you read some book about wild animals and their behavior (or at least about dogs). It is not a big problem to communicate with animals but you need to abandon magical thinking (like animals understanding grammar and articulating human words).

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  • $\begingroup$ 1. Alternatives to scent need not be identical, just mutually comprehensible. 2. While regular humans and animals are capable of communicating with each other, a great deal of nuance is lost in translation. 3. Humans are physically incapable of percieving (or at least getting usefull information from) scent-based markings left by wolves, hence the need for an alternative. 4. This question is in no way strictly limited to vocalizations, and never suggests this; while a language may include vocalizations, it is not limited to them. $\endgroup$ – Runic-Scribe Feb 13 '16 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ Farley Mowat demonstrated that a human can mark territory with urine, and wolves will understand and respect it. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Feb 14 '16 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ That makes perfect sense (as wolves have overall better senses than humans), but that is not the main issue. The real problem is the converse situation - when a wolf marks its territory, how does a human understand it? $\endgroup$ – Runic-Scribe Feb 14 '16 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ He just needs to learn it. It is not about senses but about knowledge. If you live in a village in forest surrounded by wildlife you would just have learned it as a child. While if you live in a big city you won't because you will learn other things instead. $\endgroup$ – jaboja Feb 14 '16 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ To tell it literally: you just look around for wolf feces. If you go to the library you would surely find a book explaining it in details and even providing photos. The only problem is that if you are writing fiction this brutal reality may ruin all the romanticism. $\endgroup$ – jaboja Feb 14 '16 at 1:29
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Why would a shapeshifter that shifts between a wolf-like and a human-like form necessarily have the exact senses of either a wolf or a human in those respective forms?

There are documented examples of animals having greater olfactory discrimination ability than might be expected, which if nothing else can serve as a basis for progressive evolution of such a trait. Take for example ‘Microsmatic’ Primates Revisited: Olfactory Sensitivity in the Squirrel Monkey, Laska, Seibt and Weber, 1999, emphasis mine:

Using a conditioning paradigm, the olfactory sensitivity of three squirrel monkeys to nine odorants representing different chemical classes as well as members of a homologous series of substances was investigated. The animals significantly discriminated dilutions as low as 1:10 000 n-propionic acid, 1:30 000 n-butanoic acid and n-pentanoic acid, 1:100 000 n-hexanoic acid, 1:1Mio n-heptanoic acid, 1:30 000 1-pentanol, 1:300 000 1,8-cineole, 1:1Mio n-heptanal and 1:30Mio amyl acetate from the near-odorless solvent, with single individuals scoring even slightly better. The results showed (i) the squirrel monkey to have an unexpectedly high olfactory sensitivity, which for some substances matches or even is better than that of species such as the rat or the dog, and (ii) a significant negative correlation between perceptibility in terms of olfactory detection thresholds and carbon chain length of carboxylic acids. These findings support the assumptions that olfaction may play a significant and hitherto underestimated role in the regulation of primate behavior, and that the concept of primates as primarily visual and ‘microsmatic’ animals needs to be revised.

Given that human/wolf shapeshifters might very well strictly speaking have no real taxonomic connection to either humans or wolves, and especially in the light of the shapeshifting ability to begin with, it doesn't seem too much of a stretch that their olfactory sense could be different from that of either species. Hence, you could design those senses as needed, as long as you can provide a reasonable explanation for how they got that way. (Which I think you pretty much threw out the window already with their shapeshifting ability, but that's not necessarily a reason to not try to be plausible with the remaining issues surrounding such a creature.)

As an alternative, have a look at brachycephaly in dogs. (For some examples of breeds, consider English bulldog, French bulldog, pug, Boston terrier and Pekingese. These are named in the Swedish Wikipedia article on the subject.) In order for a wolf to shapeshift into a human the muzzle must already be absorbed into the front of the head, with all of what that means, so by just a moderate amount of handwaving you could consider the face of the individual in human form to be a brachycephalic variant of that in wolf form. By merely rearranging, it should be possible to maintain at least a similar sense of smell in the two forms; same order of magnitude olfactory sensitivity, instead of several orders of magnitude difference as is the case with wolves (or dogs) and humans.

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