|When Is a Coyote Not Just a Coyote?|
|Monday, 12 May 2014 00:00 | Written by Rich Bard | Blog Entry|
What exactly is the creature that roams the forests and fields of the northeastern US and eastern Canada under the name “coyote?” Can it be the same species as that found in the western US, an animal half the size of its eastern counterpart? Is it a completely different animal? Or is it some combination of coyote mixed with dog or wolf genes? I’ve written about coyotes a few times now and, based on the comments I get, people want to know more about this mysterious creature.
The animal now known as the “eastern coyote” has been a source of debate, speculation and rumor since it first appeared and then spread across the eastern US from the 1950s through the 1970s. I remember as a boy in upstate New York in the 1970s, being very afraid of something people called a coydog. Though I actually didn’t know what it was at the time, I now know it was what people believed it to be: a coyote-dog hybrid. Only recently, with the help of DNAtesting, have facts begun to take the place of opinion about the origins of the largest predator in the region.
The story begins west of the Mississippi River, where coyotes have lived for millennia. Researchers speculate that when wolves were exterminated in the east, coyotes began to expand their range to exploit the untapped resources (i.e., food and territory) that had previously been used by wolves. It took many generations, but coyotes eventually arrived in the east by one of two major routes. Their first path was south of the Great Lakes. These coyotes have now spread across the southeast and mid-Atlantic states and closely resemble their western cousins. Coyotes that followed a different route—north of the Great Lakes—have a much more interesting story to tell, only some of which I have space for here.
As these northern coyotes filled unoccupied territories on their way eastward, over many lifetimes, they eventually found a remnant population of wolves—the same kind found today around Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Without getting bogged down in too many details, these wolves are more closely related to coyotes than other wolves that their relatives may have encountered in the recent past—like those in the Rocky Mountains, the American Southwest and the Canadian West—making it more likely that these closely related species would hybridize.
Successful reproduction by members of different species is rare in nature, but it can happen in some cases. Usually, behavioral differences keep animals from ever even having the idea to breed with other species. Different breeding seasons and mating rituals, for example, can keep species apart. In cases where individuals do crossbreed occasionally, like horses and donkeys, the offspring are often sterile, making the hybrid an evolutionary dead-end. In the case of migrating coyotes and the Algonquin wolf (now usually known as the “eastern wolf”), the result was a bigger coyote that took on some wolf traits, although the animal resembles a coyote for the most part.
Today, about one-third of coyotes in Maine have genes that came from wolves. The amount of wolf genes varies from one coyote to the next, but it appears to have little to do with the appearance of the animal. A coyote that looked nearly like a wolf was recently found to have a very low percentage of wolf genes, while another—a small female that looked much more like a purebred western coyote—had 89% wolf genes. The specific genes an individual carries seem to have more to do with appearance than the percent of wolf or coyote genes.
So, here we are today. The animal we New Englanders call coyote is very different than the one that has lived in the West since humans arrived in the area thousands of years ago. Some may look like wolves, and may in fact carry some wolf genes, but for all intents and purposes, the animal is a coyote. For people who aim to restore wolves to the Northern Forest, these wolf-like animals are muddying the waters and making it less likely that a pure wolf who wanders into the US from Ontario would ever be detected and afforded the protection of the Endangered Species Act, as any pure wolf in the east is legally entitled.
In the short term, many New Englanders—myself included—are content to share the woods with a predator that looks, behaves and, in some ways, spiritually “feels” like a wolf, whatever we choose to call it.
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