Coyote evolution helps survival

Coyotes have lived in the East since the 1930s, and recent genetic tests have shown they are actually a mixture of coyote, wolf and dog. 

The future of the coyotes that roam forests, cities and suburbs from Newfoundland to Virginia could hinge on the animals becoming the “wolves” of the East Coast. 

Coyotes have lived in the East since the 1930s, and recent genetic tests have shown they are actually a mixture of coyote, wolf and dog. That’s why Eastern coyotes tend to be bigger than their Western cousins.

And they might be getting increasingly similar to wolves. The hybrid carnivore has expanded its territory and thrived over the past eight decades, and increasingly wolflike traits are making it a larger, more adaptable animal equipped for survival on the East Coast, scientists say. The growing wolf-like characteristics mean humans must learn to better coexist with the adaptable predators.

“We now have a novel, large canid to take over that new role,” said Robert Crabtree, chief scientist of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center. “The right size is going to be selected for us by biological evolution itself.”

It’s especially bad news for deer. In becoming more wolf-like, the coyotes might become more effective predators, scientists say. And the genetic changes bode well for their ability to keep thriving in highly populated areas, including: New York City and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as well as the deer-rich woods of Maine and upstate New York.

It could ultimately mean the coyotes start to play the role of top predator on the East Coast, one played by wolves long ago and no longer occupied by a single, dominant species.

Coyote evolution helps survival

A coyote is spotted in Yellowstone National Park. Coyotes have lived in the East since the 1930s, and recent genetic tests have shown they are actually a mixture of coyote, wolf and dog.

The Eastern coyote is one of 19 subspecies of coyote, which are adaptable predators that live everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to Florida swamps. The Eastern subspecies, which ranges as far west as Ohio, is thought to have migrated to the Northeast some 80 years ago, taking over the range occupied by wolves and interbreeding with the larger animals. They no longer overlap with wolves, which are long gone from the East, save for rare red wolf, but they remain 8 to 25 percent wolf genetically, said Roland Kays, a leading coyote biologist with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

They are also about 8 to 11 percent dog, due to past interbreeding with feral dogs. The Eastern coyote remains capable of having pups with dogs, but it’s not common in part because their breeding cycles don’t neatly overlap.

Hybridization with wolves gave Eastern coyotes their size and weight, with Eastern coyotes averaging about 35 pounds and the Western subspecies averaging about 25 pounds.

Coyotes living in populated areas have accelerated in the past 10 years. Some towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut have discussed safety concerns and more lethal trapping methods.

Suburbanites from New Hampshire to Maryland have complained that they snatch outdoor pet cats. Police in Lynn, Massachusetts, advised pet owners to avoid leaving pet food or small pets outside after a coyote was spotted in the Boston-area city of 90,000. And Manhattan dwellers have even reported seeing them in Central Park.

But fears that the animals could become a threat, especially to people, are largely unfounded, said Camilla Fox, executive director of California-based Project Coyote. The animals are generally timid around humans.

There has been only one documented fatal Eastern coyote attack. Canadian singer Taylor Mitchell, 19, was mauled by coyotes in Nova Scotia in 2009.

The US Department of Agriculture has also reported that the percent of sheep and lambs killed by coyotes nationwide has actually tracked downward. Coyotes were responsible for nearly 59 percent of predator kills of sheep in 1994 and about 54 percent in 2014.

The Eastern coyotes have a greater chance of survival if they have access to large deer. Abundant food, such as the Eastern whitetails, will give their offspring a better chance of survival, leading to healthy new generations of large, wolflike coyotes.

The wolflike appearance of Eastern coyotes has motivated some people to dub them “coywolves.” Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, wants them recognized as a separate species. But Gerry Lavigne, a retired state wildlife biologist in Maine, says Eastern coyotes are not genetically distinct enough to constitute their own species, although they have wolf genes and are very adaptable. And Kays, the North Carolina coyote researcher, said so-called coywolves are “not a thing.”

Some states allow hunting permits for coyotes. Some, including Maine and Vermont, allow recreational or sport hunting year round. David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he has observed “wolflike tendencies” in Eastern coyotes, such as hunting in packs.

State wildlife authorities are interested in finding what more wolflike traits will mean for the future of coyotes, said Wally Jakubas, mammal group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. 

“Whether these wolf genes are conferring some kind of advantage to these coyotes,” Jakubas said. “That’s where it really gets interesting.”

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