Wolf or Coyote?

Wolf or Coyote?

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I took the following pictures in the Yellowstone National Park of a Coyote-like animal. However, when comparing with pictures from the Internet, I see also quite some similarities with a grey wolf. So my question: Is this really a coyote?

It's a coyote - I think it's too slender for a wolf and has pointed ears…

Coyote + wolf = new breed of predator

New DNA evidence reveals that coyotes have bred with wolves in the the northeastern United States, turning mice-eating coyotes into much larger animals with a hunger for big prey, such as deer.

The resulting "coywolves" may, however, benefit ecosystems, since they appear to be filling niches once occupied by wolves that were eradicated by humans.

"We are finding repeatedly that hybridization is more common than we used to think," lead author Roland Kays told Discovery News.

"This is an evolutionary mechanism to generate new variation that can work faster than genetic mutation," added Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum.

Kays and colleagues Abigail Curtis and Jeremy Kirchman took mitochondrial DNA samples from 686 eastern coyotes housed in museums, or obtained by donations from hunters, fur trappers and various government agencies. The scientists also measured 196 coyote skulls.

The study, outlined in the latest issue of Royal Society Biology Letters, reveals that some of the largest specimens were indeed coyote and wolf hybrids.

Given where these animals came from and the degree of documented genetic diversity, the researchers can tell that a few coyote females mated with male wolves north of the Great Lakes.

Subsequent coywolf population expanded into western New York and western Pennsylvania, which also have populations of pure coyotes.

Bigger than coyotes, smaller than wolves
Coywolves aren't too hard to pick out from pure coyotes.

"They are larger, both in terms of body size and skull dimension," Kays explained. "Their skulls are especially wide compared with their length."

"Male coywolves are larger than females, while coyotes are not," he added. "Coywolves also tend to be more variable in terms of color, with red, dark and light morphs."

He said coywolves tend to hunt larger prey than coyotes do, scavenging or actively seeking deer, for example, which is possible given the coywolves' larger size.

Coywolves even sound different.

"Their vocalizations are deeper than western coyotes," he said. "They readily make use of forest habitat, while western coyotes tend to avoid it and prefer open areas."

Not mating per usual
While hybridization happens and "is a natural process," according to Kays, it's also not mating per usual. Wolves often "persecute coyotes rather than breed with them," he said, so it's still rare for these distinct, yet related, species to make love and not war.

The same holds true for dogs and coyotes.

"Generally coyotes kill dogs dogs avoid coyotes," he said, but interbreeding does sometimes occur, although he and his team found very little DNA evidence for it in their sizable sample from the Northeast. He believes "coy-dogs" are more common in the Southeast.

Earlier this year, University of Calgary professor and wolf expert Marco Musiani determined that human breeding of dogs led to a dominant gene for dark fur to be spread, through interbreeding, to wolves. Black fur is now commonplace in wolf packs.

Climate change has diminished snow in northern environments. White wolves used to benefit when snow was more plentiful, but now black fur provides them with greater stealth when the wolves hunt in snowless places.

Musiani said: "It is somewhat ironic that a trait that was created by humans may now prove to be beneficial for wolves as they deal with human-caused changes to their habitat."

Kays said a proposal to re-introduce wolves into the Adirondacks "has basically been put on hold while we figure out the eastern wolf taxonomy."

Although the coywolf is moving into the wolf's former ecological niche, he said that "wolves are much larger," so they are still the optimal keystone predator for former wolf-dominated regions.

Students Learn the Tale of the Red Wolf and the Coyote

The tale of the red wolf and the coyote unfolded in Dr. Joe Poston's Conservation Biology class at Catawba College this fall. His students learned just how difficult it can be to conserve a species labeled "endangered," and just how interconnected different species are to one another.

Two field trips actually helped drive these classroom lessons home for the students. One took his students to the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro where red wolves are bred in captivity. The other had them traveling to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (PLNWR) in northeastern North Carolina where red wolves have been reintroduced back into their historic habitat. At Pocosin Lakes, the students had an opportunity to meet and talk with a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has spent 26 years working on the red wolf project.

What Poston's students discovered was just how fragile and tenuous the lives of the red wolves are in their natural habitat. The wolves must compete against the coyote, a non-native species in North Carolina, for habitat and food, and sometimes, hybridization with coyotes can compromise the genetic integrity of the red wolf population.

Once found throughout the southeastern United States, the red wolf is now found only in five counties in northeastern North Carolina, with a population of around 100. The federal government designated the red wolf as endangered in 1967 and conservation efforts began. In 1987, red wolves were released into the first reintroduction site at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Today, in addition to the red wolves in their North Carolina native habitat, over 200 red wolves are in captive breeding programs across the U.S.

"One thing we learned is when they breed the red wolves in captivity they sneak into the den and snatch the babies. They then sneak these 'stolen' babies into the dens of red wolves in the wild," explained Erica Pippen, a student from Durham. "Those wild wolves think those babies are their own."

Then there's the problem of red wolves being mistaken for coyotes and killed by hunters or landowners.

"There's a big coyote problem," student Chris Koehler of Burlington noted. "Red wolves keep being mistaken for coyotes because they look so similar. It's legal to shoot a coyote in North Carolina, however it's illegal under federal law to shoot a red wolf. Some hunters or landowners say they thought they were shooting at a coyote when they actually shoot a red wolf." (Typically, this is a problem when young wolves are mistaken for coyotes.)

"And North Carolina does not recognize red wolves as endangered in the state," added student Eli Wittum of Cleveland, noting how the mistaken identity problem of wolves for coyotes is compounded.

"Some of the coyotes are sterilized to keep their population down and to allow the red wolves a chance to grow their numbers. Sometimes coyotes interbreed with red wolves and these are called 'coywolves' because they're hybrids," student Cara Marshall of Salisbury said.

Matt McConnell, a student from Salisbury, described how red wolves differ from coyotes: "Red wolves are much larger than coyotes. Coyotes will be more sketchy when they see humans, whereas wolves aren't afraid and will act more interested."

"Red wolves are important for the ecosystem," Koehler volunteered. "They've changed the way deer act. Instead of going out into the middle of a farmer's field to eat when there are no red wolves around, with wolves nearby, they'll hang near the tree line instead."

Poston's students did not actually see red wolves in the wild on their field trip to northeastern North Carolina, but they heard them. One morning right before dawn as they camped in Pettigrew State Park, they heard a pack of wolves howling in the distance.

"I thought I was hearing tundra swans that were nearby our campsite," Tabitha Turenchalk, a student from Sheffield Lake, Ohio, said. "They sound like howling wolves, so I just rolled back over and went to sleep."

The group did see one male red wolf brought in from its native habitat to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service station for medical treatment it had a case of the mange on its face and muzzle, students said.

The Catawba students also saw four black bear, including one that came up very close to the group's van.

With a greater awareness of the challenges faced by conservation biologists, Poston's students wind down their fall semester with their individual thoughts of red wolves and coyotes.

"I have more respect for people who work in conservation biology," Marshall concluded. "Someone has to fight that battle and conservation is extremely important – it's more important and challenging than the average person realizes."

What is a Wolf?

Wolves are much similar to large dogs. There are only three species of wolves in the world. They include the gray wolf, red wolf, and Ethiopian wolf. They are all good hunters and they hunt on large animals such as deer and moose.

The Gray wolf is the largest species while the Ethiopian wolf is the smallest species. They have strong jaws and sharp teeth that enable them to tear the flesh from their prey. They also have good sight, hearing, and smell senses that enable them to sense their prey from a distance.

They are social animals and they live and hunt in packs. A pack may consist of 2-25 wolves. They communicate frequently with other members of the pack.

Key Points…

  • Taxonomy, the naming and grouping of living organisms, is complicated for wolves. Five subspecies of gray wolf (Canis lupus) are currently recognized in North America, including the Mexican wolf of the southwestern U.S. The red wolf (Canis rufus) of the southeastern U.S. is considered a distinct species.
  • Gray wolves, the largest wild canine, are social animals that can live in a variety of habitat types, wherever there is enough prey and where they are tolerated by humans.
  • Gray wolves have been eliminated from much of their former range. Today, about 300,000 wolves occur globally, including 60,000 in Canada, 7700-11,200 in Alaska, and about 6000 in the lower 48 U.S. states.

Taxonomy of gray wolves

Taxonomy refers to the hierarchical naming and grouping of living organisms based on their physical and genetic characteristics. Taxonomy is a system invented by people and can be confusing. Most species can be distinguished by their physical appearance. Other species can look very similar and be genetically different. Some species can look different but still breed with each other. The taxonomy of gray wolves (Canis lupus) is complicated and the subject of ongoing debate among scientists. 1-5 Since 1993, five subspecies have been recognized in North America. 6

Red Wolf (Canis Rufus)

Subspecies are the taxonomic rank below species. Typically, a subspecies lives in a separate area than the rest of the species and has different physical or genetic traits. Subspecies have a third part added to their scientific name. For instance, the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), which lives in the southwest United States, is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. 7

The number and geographic boundaries of gray wolf subspecies in North America have not been fully resolved. For example, some scientists consider wolves in parts of the eastern Great Lakes into Canada as a distinct species – the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). 8-9 Others think these wolves are not a distinct species but rather hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes. 10

The red wolf (Canis rufus) lives in the southeastern United States. 11 Genetic evidence suggests red wolves are more closely related to coyotes than gray wolves. 3 But, red wolves living in the wild today are considered distinct from both coyotes and gray wolves (notice the different species name – rufus versus lupus). Current evidence supports red wolves as a distinct species.

Biology of Gray Wolves

Wolf Pack

Gray wolves are the largest wild members of Canidae, the dog family. 12-14 Coyotes, foxes, and domestic dogs are other species in that family. Female wolves typically weigh 60 to 100 pounds, and males 70 to 115 pounds. Wolves are social and live in groups called packs, which typically include a breeding pair, their offspring, and other adults that may or may not be breeders. In the Rocky Mountains, packs average about 10 wolves in areas with little human impact, such as National Parks. Outside of parks, pack size is often less due to legal hunting, poaching, and livestock control. Wolf packs live within territories, which they defend from other wolves. Territory sizes range from 50 to over 1,000 square miles, depending on factors such as prey availability and human presence on the landscape.

Wolf with Pups

Wolves sexually mature at age two and can reproduce most of their lives. Under natural conditions, average wolf lifespan is about 5-6 years. In human-dominated landscapes, lifespan is less, with most mortality due to humans. 15 Wolves can live up to 14 years, although this is rare.

Wolves typically mate in January through March and sometimes mate for life. After a gestation period of about two months, four to six pups are born in early spring and are cared for by the entire pack. By seven to eight months, pups are almost fully grown and begin traveling with adults. A maturing wolf may stay with the pack and attempt to gain a breeding position. More often, it may leave to try to find a mate and start a new pack.

Gray wolves use many different habitat types, from Arctic tundra to forests, grasslands, and deserts wherever there is enough prey and where they are tolerated by humans. In the western United States, the best habitat for wolves is on public lands where both these needs are met. In the Rocky Mountains, wolves feed on a variety of prey, primarily elk, but also deer and occasionally moose. In Yellowstone National Park, elk make up about 90% of their diet. Wolves also eat small mammals, insects, and berries.

How many wolves live in the wild?

Historically, the gray wolf was the most widely distributed land mammal on earth, other than humans. 16,17 They lived through most of the Northern Hemisphere. Due to habitat loss and predator control programs, wolves were eliminated through much of their former range. Today, they inhabit parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. About 300,000 wolves occur globally. 16

In North America, gray wolves once ranged from Alaska and Canada to Mexico, occupying most of North America. Wolves were eliminated from the lower 48 U.S. states, except in northeastern Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park, Michigan. 17 Wolves have since recovered in some areas. Today, they occupy only 15% of their historic range in the lower 48 states. 18

Currently, over 60,000 gray wolves live in Canada and 7700-11,200 live in Alaska. 19 About 6000 inhabit the lower 48 states. This includes about 4000 wolves in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. About 2,000 wolves live in the northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Smaller numbers of wolves live in the Pacific Northwest, including Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. 20 A group of up to 6 wolves was confirmed in northwest Colorado in 2020, and an additional lone wolf was confirmed in north-central Colorado near Walden in summer 2019. 21-22

The Mexican gray wolf was reintroduced to Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico starting in the late 1990’s. At least 160 Mexican gray wolves now live in the wild in the U.S. 7 A small and unknown number of Mexican wolves are free-ranging in northern Mexico.

The red wolf is one of the world’s most endangered large carnivores, listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 23-24 Red wolves were reintroduced into eastern North Carolina starting in the late 1980’s. 11 Currently, about 40 red wolves live in the wild.

Ancient DNA Reveals Secrets of the “Terrifying” Dire Wolf – Famous From Game of Thrones

The iconic, prehistoric dire wolf, which prowled through Los Angeles and elsewhere in the Americas over 11 millennia ago, was a distinct species from the slightly smaller gray wolf, an international team of scientists reported in the journal Nature.

The study, which puts to bed a mystery that biologists have pondered for more than 100 years, was led by researchers from UCLA, along with colleagues from Durham University in the U.K., Australia’s University of Adelaide and Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University.

“The terrifying dire wolf, a legendary symbol of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tar Pits, has earned its place among the many large, unique species that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene epoch,” said UCLA’s Robert Wayne, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the study’s co-senior author. The Pleistocene, commonly called the Ice Age, ended roughly 11,700 years ago.

More than 4,000 dire wolves have been excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits, but scientists have known little about their evolution or the reasons for their ultimate disappearance. Gray wolves, also found in the fossil-rich pits, have survived until this day.

“Dire wolves have always been an iconic representation of the last ice age in the Americas, but what we know about their evolutionary history has been limited to what we can see from the size and shape of their bones,” said co-lead author Angela Perri of Durham University.

Those bones are now revealing much more. Using cutting-edge molecular approaches to analyze five dire wolf genomes from fossil bones dating back 13,000 to 50,000 years ago, the researchers were able to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the long-extinct carnivore for the first time.

Significantly, they found no evidence for the flow of genes between dire wolves and either North American gray wolves or coyotes. The absence of any genetic transference indicates that dire wolves evolved in isolation from the Ice Age ancestors of these other species.

“We have found the dire wolf is not closely related to the gray wolf. Further, we’ve shown that the dire wolf never interbred with the gray wolf,” said co-lead author Alice Mouton, who conducted the research as a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in ecology and evolutionary biology in Wayne’s laboratory.

The ancestors of the gray wolf and the much smaller coyote evolved in Eurasia and are thought to have moved into North America less than 1.37 million years ago, relatively recently in evolutionary time. The dire wolf, on the other hand, based on its genetic difference from those species, is now believed to have originated in the Americas.

“When we first started this study, we thought that dire wolves were just beefed-up gray wolves, so we were surprised to learn how extremely genetically different they were, so much so that they likely could not have interbred,” said the study’s last author, Laurent Frantz, a professor at Ludwig Maximillian University and the U.K.’s Queen Mary University. “This must mean that dire wolves were isolated in North America for a very long time to become so genetically distinct.”

“Dire wolves are sometimes portrayed as mythical creatures — giant wolves prowling bleak frozen landscapes — but reality turns out to be even more interesting,” said Kieren Mitchell of the University of Adelaide, a co-lead author.

The dire wolf was a ‘lone wolf’ when it came to breeding

Interbreeding is quite common among wolf lineages when their geographical ranges overlap. Modern gray wolves and coyotes, for example, frequently interbreed in North America. Yet the researchers, using a data set that included a Pleistocene dire wolf, 22 modern North American gray wolves and coyotes, and three ancient dogs, found that the dire wolf hadn’t interbred with any of the others — likely because it was genetically unable to reproduce with those species.

“Our finding of no evidence for gene flow between dire wolves and gray wolves or coyotes, despite the substantial range overlap during the Late Pleistocene, suggests that the common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes probably evolved in geographical isolation from members of the dire wolf lineage,” Wayne said. “This result is consistent with the hypothesis that dire wolves originated in the Americas.”

Another hypothesis about the dire wolf — one untested in the current study — concerns its extinction. It is commonly thought that because of its body size — larger than gray wolves and coyotes — the dire wolf was more specialized for hunting large prey and was unable to survive the extinction of its regular food sources. A lack of interbreeding may have hastened its demise, suggested Mouton, now a postdoctoral researcher at Belgium’s University of Liege.

“Perhaps the dire wolf’s inability to interbreed did not provide necessary new traits that might have allowed them to survive,” she said.

Uncovering the mystery of the dire wolf’s DNA

While the dire wolves sequenced in this study possessed no ancestry from gray wolves, coyotes or their recent North American ancestors, a comparison of the DNA of dire wolves with that of gray wolves, coyotes and a wide variety of other wolf-like species revealed a common but distant evolutionary relationship.

“The ancestors of dire wolves likely diverged from those of gray wolves more than 5 million years ago — it was a great surprise to discover that this divergence occurred so early,” Mouton said. “This finding highlights how special and unique the dire wolf was.”

Based on their genomic analyses, the researchers also concluded that there are three primary lineages that descend from the shared ancestry: dire wolves, African jackals and a group comprising all other existing wolf-like species, including the gray wolf.

Gray wolves, which today live mostly in wilderness and remote regions of North America, are more closely related to African wild dogs and Ethiopian wolves than to dire wolves, Wayne noted.

The study is the first ever to report genome-wide data on dire wolves.

The genomic analyses — conducted in a joint effort at UCLA, Durham University, the University of Oxford, the University of Adelaide, Ludwig Maximilian University and Queen Mary University — focused on both the nuclear genome and the mitochondrial genome, which is abundant in ancient remains.

“The decreased cost of sequencing analyses, in addition to state-of-the-art molecular biology methods for highly degraded materials, allows us to recover DNA from fossils,” Mouton said. “Ancient DNA genomic analyses represent an incredible tool to better understand the evolutionary history of ancient and extinct species.”

Reference: “Dire wolves were the last of an ancient New World canid lineage” by Angela R. Perri, Kieren J. Mitchell, Alice Mouton, Sandra Álvarez-Carretero, Ardern Hulme-Beaman, James Haile, Alexandra Jamieson, Julie Meachen, Audrey T. Lin, Blaine W. Schubert, Carly Ameen, Ekaterina E. Antipina, Pere Bover, Selina Brace, Alberto Carmagnini, Christian Carøe, Jose A. Samaniego Castruita, James C. Chatters, Keith Dobney, Mario dos Reis, Allowen Evin, Philippe Gaubert, Shyam Gopalakrishnan, Graham Gower, Holly Heiniger, Kristofer M. Helgen, Josh Kapp, Pavel A. Kosintsev, Anna Linderholm, Andrew T. Ozga, Samantha Presslee, Alexander T. Salis, Nedda F. Saremi, Colin Shew, Katherine Skerry, Dmitry E. Taranenko, Mary Thompson, Mikhail V. Sablin, Yaroslav V. Kuzmin, Matthew J. Collins, Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding, M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Anne C. Stone, Beth Shapiro, Blaire Van Valkenburgh, Robert K. Wayne, Greger Larson, Alan Cooper and Laurent A. F. Frantz, 13 January 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-03082-x

The study’s 49 co-authors also include Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who holds the Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology Julie Meachen, who earned her doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and is now an associate professor of anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa and Colin Shew, a UCLA laboratory technician in ecology and evolutionary biology as well as dozens of other researchers from the U.K., Australia, Germany, Russia, Spain, France, Denmark and other countries.

Funding sources for the research included the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Marie Curie COFUND, the European Research Council, the Natural Environmental Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Australian Research Council. The Nature paper lists many other acknowledgments.

Wolf in Coyote's Clothing: A new genetic study adds fuel to the hybrid debate

AP photo A northeastern coyote

By Mary Esch
The Associated Press

Albany -- Wolves in the eastern United States are hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes, while the region’s coyotes actually are wolf-coyote-dog hybrids, according to a new genetic study that is adding fuel to a longstanding debate over the origins of two endangered species.

The study is unlikely to impact the management of the endangered red wolf in North Carolina and the eastern Canadian wolf in Ontario, but it offers fresh insight into their genetic makeup and concludes that those wolves are hybrids that developed over the last few hundred years.

Some scientists have argued that the red wolf, Canis rufus, and the eastern Canadian wolf, Canis lycaon, evolved from an ancient eastern wolf species distinct from the larger gray wolf, Canis lupus, that is found in western North America.

Wolf experts who adhere to that theory say the new study is interesting but falls short of proving anything. They say it doesn’t explain why hybrids appear only in some places and note that western wolves don’t hybridize with coyotes but often kill them.

In the study, published online earlier this month in the peer-reviewed journal Genome Research, 16 researchers from around the globe led by Robert Wayne of the University of California-Los Angeles, used information from the dog genome — the animal’s entire genetic code — to survey the genetic diversity in dogs, wolves and coyotes.

It was the most detailed genetic study of any wild vertebrate species to date, using molecular genetic techniques to look at over 48,000 markers throughout the full genome, said Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum and a co-author.

In a previous study of the dog genome published last year in the journal Nature, a Wayne-led international team of scientists reported that domestic dogs likely originated in the Middle East and shared more genetic similarity with Middle Eastern gray wolves than any other wolf population.

The recent study showed a gradient of hybridization in wolves.

In the West, wolves were pure wolf, while in the western Great Lakes, they averaged 85 percent wolf and 15 percent coyote. Wolves in Algonquin Park in eastern Ontario averaged 58 percent wolf.

The red wolf in North Carolina, which has been the subject of extensive preservation and restoration efforts, was found to be 24 percent wolf and 76 percent coyote.

Northeastern coyotes, which only colonized the region in the past 60 years, were found to be 82 percent coyote, 9 percent dog and 9 percent wolf.

In a study co-authored by Kays last year in the journal Biology Letters, museum specimens and genetic samples were used to show that coyotes migrating eastward bred with wolves to evolve into a larger form that has become the top predator in the Northeast, filling a niche left when native eastern wolves were hunted out of existence. The hybridization allowed coyotes to evolve from the scrawny mouse-eaters of western grasslands to robust deer-hunters in eastern forests.

The genetic techniques used in the recent study allowed researchers to estimate that hybridization, in most cases, happened when humans were hunting eastern wolves to extinction, Kays said.

“The few remaining animals could find no proper mates so took the best option they could get,” Kays said.

L. David Mech, senior research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Research Center in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., is skeptical of the theory that eastern wolves are hybrids.

“How do you reconcile this with the fact that gray wolves typically don’t breed with coyotes, but kill them?” Mech said. “We have no records in the West of wolves hybridizing with coyotes, even in areas where single wolves looking for mates have dispersed into the middle of coyote country.”

Mech also questioned whether the study tested enough Canadian and North Carolina wolves and whether those specimens were true representatives of those populations.
Although 48,000 genetic markers sounds like a lot, it's actually a relatively small part of the entire genetic code, Mech said. So the evidence of a unique eastern wolf ancestor could simply be in another part of the code that wasn't analyzed, he said.

Several researchers who consider the eastern wolf species separate from the gray wolf weighed in recently in an online discussion of the new study.

Brent Patterson, a genetics researcher at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, called the study “an important step forward.” But until more samples are analyzed, the hypothesis that a North American wolf evolved independently from the gray wolf was still viable, he said.

“It’s an academic issue,” Mech said. “It’s nice to know what the origins are from the standpoint of curiosity, but from a conservation standpoint, it shouldn’t make any difference.”

David Rabon, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program in North Carolina, said the federal agency has taken the position that the red wolf is a unique species that warrants protection. The new study, while interesting, won’t likely change management decisions, he said.

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A Wolf in Coyote’s Clothing?

Twenty-seven million years before the first human was born in Africa, North America teemed with more than 25 species of dog-like animals. It was the heyday of dogs never before or since has there been such a level of diversity among these animals. But scientists are still figuring out how we got from the “Cradle of Canines” to today.

It all started, scientists believe, 60 million years ago with the Miacids, tiny ferret-like insectivores with tails, the ancestors of today’s dogs (canids) and cats (felids). Canids settled into what is now North America, although the sporadic land bridge across the Bering Strait allowed some to roam over to Eurasia and some of their descendants to return. Each canid population evolved to maximize on traits that helped it survive in its new home.

For example, in modern North America, wolves and coyotes have very different lifestyles. Wolves hunt large prey, and so live in packs with strong bonds between individuals. Coyotes hunt small prey by themselves or in pairs. Wolves are territorial and extremely protective of their kills, while coyotes don’t need to protect small kills that they can eat quickly. When the two clash, wolves usually chase coyotes away, but when things turn bloody, coyotes barely stand a chance against their stronger cousins.

Scientists have always argued about where exactly to draw the lines between North American canid species. “It’s really all debatable, especially when it comes to looking at their genetics,” renowned biologist and wolf expert Ron Nowak said.

Now, a study published in the Journal of Mammalogy in October uses DNA from intestinal cells shed naturally in scat to learn more about coyotes. The results provide insight into both how coyotes reached the east coast, and their relationship with wolves—which has been more intimate than you may have guessed.

The team compared the DNA of coyotes in Virginia with samples from other populations. They found that Virginian coyotes shared the most DNA with populations in western New York and Pennsylvania. This result supports the theory that coyote populations grew and spread eastward via two routes: one southern, through the Mississippi Valley into the Virginias and Carolinas, and one northern, through the Great Lakes region to New England, New York, and the Appalachians.

Coyotes may have detoured around the middle of the country to avoid human populations. Although they are better able to cope with hunting pressure than wolves because of their smaller size and more independent lifestyle, safe is better than sorry.

The researchers also compared the coyote DNA to preserved specimens from wolves that lived in the Great Lakes region over a hundred years ago, before coyotes colonized the area. They found the two groups shared some of the same genes, which suggests that once coyotes did arrive, they got friendly with the locals.

Camera trap photo taken February 15, 2008, at Quantico Marine Base. (Courtesy of Quantico Fish and Wildlife Office)

Hybridization with coyotes is also a threat to the recovery of wolves. Because of the mixed genetic heritage of the Great Lake wolves, some people argue they do not qualify for endangered species status. Hybrid coyotes in North Carolina are encroaching into the territory of the hundred or so extremely endangered red wolves living in the wild, which only got a second chance through careful captive breeding and reintroduction programs. Why does that matter? First, it may affect the future of the coyote-human relationship. Coyotes with Great Lakes wolf ancestry have differently-shaped jaws. “Perhaps hybrid coyotes will [help control] some of our overly abundant deer,” speculated Christine Bozarth, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and lead author on the paper. That could also lead to conflict with livestock owners who raise similar animals, like sheep and goats.

But this study’s implications reach further than just into the tangled relationship between wolves and coyotes it will also inform future genetic studies of species migration routes. Imagine asking a wolf politely for a cheek swab or blood sample to use for DNA testing and you can appreciate how important it is to develop procedures like those used in this study.

“For the past decade, our lab has developed and used noninvasive techniques to monitor and survey rare and endangered species in various regions of the world,” said Jesús Maldonado, a research geneticist at SCBI and co-author of the paper. “This was the first time that we were able to show that noninvasive techniques can also be an effective tool for tracking the origins and movement patterns of this elusive canid.”

Are coyotes moving into your neighborhood?

Coyotes thrive in cities. Seen in Denver, Colo., this one is lounging on a lawn in City Park.

tami1120/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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September 3, 2020 at 6:30 am

Late one afternoon, Raphael Kaplan and his family were out walking near their home in Los Angeles, Calif., the second largest U.S. city. He looked through a fence surrounding a golf course and saw two coyotes.

They were “hanging out,” he says, “just lying down and waiting for us to pass.” This wasn’t an unusual experience for Raphael, who is 10 years old. The fourth grader says he sees coyotes all the time, often at that golf course. He’s also seen them walking down his street.

Coyotes look like medium-sized dogs or small wolves with short gray and brown fur. But they are a separate species, Canis latrans. They will eat just about anything and can learn to survive in nearly any environment.

Before 1700, coyotes only lived in the midwestern and southwestern United States and Mexico. But then people wiped out nearly all of North America’s wolves because the predators sometimes kill farm animals. This opened up space for coyotes.

People tried to get rid of coyotes, too. Some considered them to be pests. During the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. government poisoned around 6.5 million coyotes. Killing them is still legal in most U.S. states. Hunters and trappers kill hundreds of thousands every year. Despite all this, coyotes have survived and spread. They have moved into every U.S. state except Hawaii. Some roam only in wild areas. Many, however, make their homes in cities and suburbs. If you live in North America, chances are good that you have coyote neighbors.

Coyotes could be living in your backyard. These pups were born in a den in a backyard in suburban Chicago. Ashley Wurth/Cook County Coyote Project

Encounters with coyotes happen regularly across the United States as well as in Canada, Mexico and parts of Central America. In Chicago, Ill., for instance, coyotes once denned on the top floor of a parking garage across from Soldier Field, the home stadium of the Chicago Bears football team. In 2015, New York City police officers in trucks, cars and helicopters chased a coyote through Riverside Park in Manhattan. They aimed to move the animal out of the city. After three hours, they gave up the chase. The coyote had simply hidden itself too well.

Occasionally, coyotes may bite or attack people or their pets. However, coyotes mostly avoid people. Raphael is glad he’s gotten to see them so many times.

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He’s also helped study them. From 2015 through 2019, the National Park Service’s L.A. Urban Coyote Project recruited kids and others without science training. These citizen scientists collected coyote poop and then sorted through it. The goal was to learn what city coyotes eat. Other studies in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago have looked at where city coyotes go and how they behave. Such studies are teaching us how city coyotes thrive amongst people.

Scat party

Raphael poked through a pile of coyote poop. “There were teeth, claws and whiskers,” he reports. “It was parts of rabbits.”

He was at a scat party organized by the National Park Service. (Scat is the technical name for wild animal poop). At tables spread out around a room, citizen scientists of all ages and all backgrounds inspected piles of scat. Justin Brown is a biologist at the National Park Service in Calabasas, Calif. He answered questions and helped identify everything. The group had found lots of rabbit remains. They also found lizard parts, rat teeth, beetles, fruit seeds, cat hair and much more.

Raphael Kaplan dissects coyote droppings at a scat party organized by the L.A. Urban Coyote Project. He presented information at his school’s science fair about coyotes and his experience with citizen science. Charlie Kaplan

Before the scat party, other volunteers had walked along planned routes, searching for coyote droppings. Some looked in a suburban neighborhood near the city. Others looked in downtown Los Angeles. Brown planned to compare the diets of coyotes from these two locations. When the volunteers found scat, they picked it up with gloves. Then they put it into paper bags, which they labeled with the date and location. Later, they’d drop these off with Brown and his team.

What did Brown’s team do with this smelly poop?

The first step was to roast the stuff in the oven for 24 hours at 60° Celsius (140° Fahrenheit). This killed any parasites or harmful microbes. “From there, we’d pour it out of the bags and look at each one,” says Brown. Sometimes, the volunteers collected dog poop by mistake. Coyote scat contains lots of hair from animals the coyote ate. The hair twists together at the end of each dropping. Brown and his team looked for this and several other telltale signs. They tossed out scat samples that probably weren’t from coyotes.

Next, they wrapped each sample in a stocking. They threw the stockings into a washing machine for a couple of cycles. This got rid of almost everything except hair, bones and other food leftovers. Finally, the stockings went into the dryer. By the time the stuff got to Raphael and the other scat party volunteers, it was clean and safe to handle. “It just smelled like dirt a little bit,” says Raphael.

During a series of such parties, volunteers and scientists worked together to identify the food sources in each sample. They had a lot to get through. “We ended up with about 3,000 scats,” says Brown. He noted that his team never would have been able to gather and process so much without community help.

Most coyote scat contains hair and bones from rabbits, voles and other small prey. But the scat of city coyotes also may contain remnants of garbage, fruits from people’s yards, pet food or the hair of pet cats. National Park Service

Some interesting trends emerged from these comparisons of scat from city versus suburban coyotes. Suburban ones mostly ate rabbits. About 50 percent of those scat samples had rabbit remains. City coyotes also ate wild food. But their scat samples were more likely to contain garbage, pet food and fruit from trees people like to grow in their yards. Sometimes there were even the remains of pet cats. Some scats contained fast food wrappers. In fact, human-food sources accounted for as much as 60 to 75 percent of what urban coyotes ate.

Life in the big city

Do city coyotes have it made? Not exactly. Stanley Gehrt is a biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. He has run the Urban Coyote Research Project in Chicago since 2000. Coyotes respond positively to some aspects of city life and negatively to others, he’s found. The more city-like an environment is, the harder it becomes for coyotes to succeed there.

One good part of city life is protection from hunting and trapping. These activities aren’t usually allowed within cities and suburbs. And cities offer an excellent supply of food, Brown’s research shows. That often includes wild prey.

“Downtown Chicago has an overabundance of rabbits,” says Gehrt. Before coyotes moved in, human trappers had to work to keep rabbit populations under control. Now, coyotes do that job.

Voles and squirrels are other coyote favorites. Squirrels have learned to visit people’s bird feeders, so some coyotes “crouch and hide near bird feeders,” waiting to pounce on a tasty squirrel, says Gehrt. Others munch on the berries and other fruits that people grow in their yards. Human food and garbage also is plentiful in a city.

Some coyotes get used to these easy food sources and lose their fear of people. If an animal begins approaching or bothering people, police or other local officials may kill it. To make sure coyote neighbors stay a safe distance away, people should secure their garbage, pick up fallen fruit and keep pet food inside.

Coyotes usually try to avoid people, but the more people there are, the harder that gets. Coyotes may end up with a very small home territory. It might be limited to a single park. They may cut across roads and highways to get to the different parts of their territory. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for urban coyotes.

Coyotes live in downtown Chicago and in many other U.S. cities. They spend most of their time in natural areas such as parks, but will also cross roads or roam through backyards, parking lots and alleys. Jeff Nelson/Cook County Coyote Project

But the more often coyotes cross roads, the better they get at it, notes Gehrt. He’s observed coyotes wait patiently at the edge of a highway. When they see a gap in traffic, they then run across as quickly as possible. He’s also watched coyotes using traffic lights. “They will wait until the traffic stops, then take their time, often using the crosswalk, to cross the road,” he says. “They know the traffic is going to stop.”

Urban coyotes also tend to spend more time hunting and traveling after dark. Fewer people are out and about then, so it’s easier and safer for them to get around.

Family matters

Coyotes have lived in the Los Angeles and Chicago areas since the early 1900s. So these animals have had more than a century to get used to city life. Coyotes moved into New York City only recently. The first sightings in this city of more than 8 million people took place in 1990.

“Most people don’t realize they’re here,” says Carol Henger. She’s a PhD student in biology at Fordham University who has studied New York City’s coyotes as part of the Gotham Coyote Project. To learn about the animals’ recent expansion into a new city, she studies their genes. Genes are made of DNA. They carry instructions on how the body should grow and behave.

Henger got those DNA samples from scat. Once again, citizen scientists stepped in to help. Ferdie Yau from the Bronx, N.Y., was one of them. He had studied wildlife biology in graduate school but decided to become a dog trainer. He realized he could use his skills to help the Gotham Coyote Project.

“I practiced with my own dog and was able to train her to find coyote scat,” he says. “She became really good at it.” His dog, Scout, was seven at the time. She retired from scat hunting last year at the age of 11. She’d sniffed out more than 100 scats, Yau guesses.

Henger and her team extracted DNA from all of the scat found by volunteers like Yau and Scout. They then tested to check whether each sample came from a coyote. If the DNA of several samples matched exactly, the researchers knew they came from the same individual. If several samples were very similar, those coyotes had to be part of the same family. “I was able to figure out that we had about five to six family groups in the city, all related to each other,” says Henger.

Alexandra DeCandia studied the genetics of New York City’s coyotes. To do that, she had to get DNA out of scat samples. That involves mixing the sample with chemicals that separate DNA from other cell parts. Edward Schrom

Most likely, all of these coyotes descended from the first few who ventured into the city. “They don’t seem to be getting in and out of the city to go find partners,” says Alexandra DeCandia. She’s a PhD student in genetics at Princeton University, in New Jersey, who also worked on the study.

This lack of movement in and out of the city isn’t good news for the coyotes. A healthy population of animals has high genetic diversity. That means that any two animals are likely to carry very different sets of genetic instructions. If something bad happens, such as a disease or a lack of food, there’s a higher likelihood that some of the animals will carry genes that will protect them or help them adapt.

New York’s coyotes “still have decent levels of genetic diversity,” says DeCandia. But if the population stays small and doesn’t get in and out of the city, genetic diversity will fall. This could eventually leave it at risk of diseases or other problems.

What prevents city coyotes from mixing with their rural neighbors? Highways act as barriers. But the coyotes also may not want to leave. Like the fable of the city mouse and the country mouse, a city coyote may feel very uncomfortable in the country, and vice versa, guesses Javier Monzon. He is a biologist at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “An animal born in the city, raised in the city and adapted to eating things in the city may not want to go [into the mountains],” he says.

In a genetic survey of the coyotes of Los Angeles and surrounding natural areas, he and his team found four distinct populations. One population lived in the mountains. These country coyotes were all more related to each other than to any of the city coyotes — even though some of the country coyotes lived on opposite sides of Los Angeles. Monzon and his colleagues shared their findings May 4 in the Journal of Urban Ecology.

This pup is hanging out on a front doorstep in Los Angeles. “I’ve seen whole litters of pups under people’s decks,” says Justin Brown, a biologist with the National Park Service. “I’ve seen them in downtown L.A. next to big buildings.” National Park Service

Cities may not be the best home for coyotes. People get nervous when the dog-sized predators hunt and forage in their backyards. And coyotes may have trouble finding mates or avoiding cars. But despite these difficulties, city coyotes persist. We know from history that trying to get rid of them won’t work. Instead, today’s coyote experts focus on finding ways to help people and coyotes thrive safely, side by side.

Leave coyotes alone — they can be dangerous

Coyotes are wild animals. If you see one, don’t approach it or try to feed it. But don’t run away, either. “Yell at it. Wave your arms,” says Stanley Gehrt. “The coyote should run away.” If it doesn’t, you should report the animal to your local wildlife control agency.

On January 8, 2020, a coyote attacked a six-year-old boy in Lincoln Park in Chicago, Ill. The boy’s caretaker was able to scare the animal away and the boy survived. Such attacks on humans are very rare. This was the first in the city for decades. But young children especially should be very careful around these animals.

Pets that roam outdoors also could be in danger. Coyotes may hunt and eat cats or small dogs. Justin Brown’s study of coyote diet found that 20 percent of the scat samples from city-dwelling animals had cat hair in them. This was higher than Brown had expected. Still, pets are not a main food source.

Gehrt has been studying urban coyotes for 20 years. He says, “They’re not living off people’s pets at all.” In his studies of coyote diets, he’s rarely found remains of pets or signs of human food, pet food or garbage. Most coyotes — even ones that live in cities — prefer wild prey, he says.

It’s very unlikely that a coyote will attack you or your pet, but you should still be very careful around these wild animals.

Power Words

beetle: An order of insects known as Coleoptera, containing at least 350,000 different species. Adults tend to have hard and/or horn-like “forewings” which covers the wings used for flight.

biology: The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

citizen science: Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.

coyote: This relatively long-legged member of the dog family (Canis latrans) is sometimes referred to as the prairie wolf. It is, however, notably smaller and its build more scrawny than a true wolf. Found from Alaska down into Central America, coyotes have lately expanded their range into all 50 U.S. states. Many now hang out in urban areas where they have no predators and can easily dine on rodents and scavenge trashed food.

diet: The foods and liquids ingested by an animal to provide the nutrition it needs to grow and maintain health. (verb) To adopt a specific food-intake plan for the purpose of controlling body weight.

diversity: A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds. (in biology) A range of different life forms.

DNA: (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

environment: The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

forage: To search for something, especially food. It’s also a term for the food eaten by grazing animals, such as cattle and horses.

fruit: A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.

gene: (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

genetic diversity: The range of genes types — and traits — within a population.

graduate school: A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

lizard: A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.

microbe: Short for microorganism. A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

parasite: An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide that host any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.

PhD: (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

population: (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

predator: (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

prey: (n.) Animal species eaten by others. (v.) To attack and eat another species.

scat: The feces shed by a wild animal, usually a mammal.

species: A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

survey: To view, examine, measure or evaluate something, often land or broad aspects of a landscape. (with people) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people.

urban: Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.


Journal: A. Adducci II et al. "Urban coyotes are genetically distinct from coyotes in natural habitats." Journal of Urban Ecology, Volume 6, Issue 1, May 4, 2020. doi: 10.1093/jue/juaa010.

Journal: E.H. Ellington and S.D. Gehrt. Behavioral responses by an apex predator to urbanization. Behavioral Ecology. Vol. 30, May/June 2019, p. 821. doi: 10.1093/beheco/arz019.

Journal: S.D. Gehrt, J.L. Brown and C. Anchor. Is the urban coyote a misanthropic synanthrope? The case from Chicago. Cities and the Environment. Vol. 4, July 20, 2011.

About Kathryn Hulick

Kathryn Hulick is a freelance science writer and the author of Strange But True: 10 of the World's Greatest Mysteries Explained, a book about the science of ghosts, aliens and more. She loves hiking, gardening and robots.

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Why The Eastern Coyote Should Be A Separate Species: The “Coywolf"

There is considerable debate and disagreement among scientists over what to call a canid inhabiting the northeastern United States. In the course of this creature’s less than 100-year history, it has been variously called coyote, eastern coyote, coydog, Tweed wolf, brush wolf, new wolf, northeastern coyote and now coywolf, with nature documentaries highlighting recent genetic findings.

Recently, Roland Kays penned an interesting article in The Conversation concluding that 𠇌oywolf is not a thing,” and that it should not be considered for species status. Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the beautiful light orangey-red canid in the cover picture of that article looks nothing like a western coyote and has striking observable characteristics of both coyotes and wolves, as well as dogs.

Soon after, my colleague William Lynn (Marsh Institute, Clark University) and I published a meta-analysis in the scientific journal Canid Biology & Conservation that summarized recent studies on this creature and confirmed that what we call 𠇌oyotes” in northeastern North America formed from hybridization (the mating of two or more species) between coyotes and wolves in southern Ontario around the turn of the 20th century.

In the paper, we suggest that coywolf is the most accurate term for this animal and that they warrant new species status, Canis oriens, which literally means eastern canid in Latin. We based this on the fact that they are physically and genetically distinct from their parental species of mainly western coyotes (Canis latrans) and eastern wolves (Canis lycaon). They also have smaller amounts of gray wolf (Canis lupus) and domestic dog (Canis familiaris) genes.

The eastern coyote/coywolf in a nutshell

Before I describe why the coywolf is unique, let’s get a quick snapshot of the animal we are discussing.

What we are calling Canis oriens colonized northeastern North America 50-75 years ago and has been described in detail in Gerry Parker’s 1995 book, �stern Coyote: The Story of Its Success,” and my 2007 paperback, “Suburban Howls.” This animal averages 13.6-18.2 kg (30-40 lbs), with individual weights exceeding 22.7-25 kg (50-55 lbs).

The emerging picture of the coywolf is that they have a larger home range than most western coyotes but smaller than wolves, at about 30 square kilometers (about 11 square miles). They also travel long distances daily (10-15 miles), eat a variety of food including white-tailed deer, medium-sized prey such as rabbits and woodchucks, and small prey such as voles and mice. They are social, often living in families of three to five members.

Eastern coyotes hunt a wide range of animals, including small rodents but also deer. Two eastern coyotes took down this deer in eastern Canada, according to the photographer. rvewong/flickr, CC BY-SA

In short, the coywolf has ecological and physical characteristics that can be seen on a continuum of coyote-like to wolf-like predators, but occupies an ecological niche that is closer to coyotes than wolves.

So why is coywolf a more accurate name?

Some argue that if the coywolf is predominantly coyote, then they should be called coyotes. Let’s analyze this claim.

I have previously found coywolves to be significantly different in body size from both western coyotes and eastern wolves. However, they are closer to coyotes whereby eastern wolves are 61-71 percent heavier than the same-sex coywolf, while coywolves are 35-37 percent heavier than western coyotes.

Bill Lynn and I concluded that they are statistically different – both genetically and physically – from their parental species since the coywolf is about 60 percent coyote, 30 percent wolf, and 10 percent dog thus, nearly 40 percent of this animal is not coyote. That, essentially, is why we recommend that they be classified as a new species, Canis oriens.

Kays’ article stated that 𠇌oyotes” in the Northeast are mostly (60-84 percent) coyote, with lesser amounts of wolf (%-25 percent) and dog (8-11 percent). However, the values of 84 percent coyote and only 8 percent wolf used a study (by vonHoldt et al. 2011) that has since mostly been discounted by subsequent papers since eastern wolves were not adequately sampled in their analysis.

Thus, based on our analysis, the claim that coywolves are predominantly coyote is untrue. While they may be numerically closer in size and genetics to coyotes than wolves, they are clearly statistically divergent from both coyotes and wolves. Taken from a wolf-centric viewpoint, I can see that they seem more coyote-like than wolf-like, but it is important to realize that a large part of their background is not from coyotes.

Eastern coyotes, or coywolves, have ecological and physical characteristics that can fit on a continuum between coyote and wolf. Jonathan Way, Author provided

The term coywolf uses the portmanteau method (i.e., a word formed by combining two other words) of naming, whereby the first word (coyote) of the combined two (coyote-wolf) is the more dominant or robust descriptor of that term. It does not suggest that this animal is equally or more wolf than coyote as has been suggested.

Furthermore, I believe that the terms coyote, eastern coyote and northeastern coyote undervalue the importance of the eastern wolf – the animals that interbred with western coyotes in Canada in the early 20th century to produce the coywolf – in the ancestry of this canid. This naming effectively discounts that, for example, one-third of the population’s mitochondrial DNA (C1 haplotype) is derived from the eastern wolf and another one-third (C9 haplotype) is not found in most nonhybridized western coyote populations but is found in eastern wolves.

Research has confirmed that all canids in the genus Canis can and do mate with other species (or canid types). This includes gray wolves mating with eastern wolves around the Great Lakes area, eastern wolves with gray wolves and western coyotes north and south/west of Algonquin Park in Ontario, respectively. Also, western coyotes mix with eastern wolves and coywolves, especially at the edge of their respective ranges.

Given that the most up-to-date studies have discovered relatively small amounts of dog (

8-10 percent) in the coywolf’s genome, and dogs are closely related to wolves, it seems reasonable to keep 𠆌oywolf’ rather than 𠆌oywolfdog’ as this creature’s descriptor.

Benefits of hybridization

Hybridization is a natural process that can be greatly accelerated by human modifications to the environment, like hunting and habitat destruction – two key ingredients that paved the way for the creation of the coywolf.

Education efforts could actually use the hybrid coywolf as a model for science education and a flagship species for dynamic, urbanized ecosystems. While protecting natural habitat is vitally important to maintaining wild wolf populations, this isn’t possible anymore in many regions, such as much of southern New England. In these areas, any canid on the landscape is important – especially a hybrid one with genes from multiple species adapted to its environment.

Coyotes from the Plains intermixed with wolves in Canada about 100 years ago and their descendants have colonized the eastern U.S. Way (2013) from Canadian Field Naturalist, Author provided

In one word, coywolf quite accurately summarizes the main components of this animal’s background. Other species have far more names. For instance, cougars (Puma concolor) are also called mountain lions, pumas, catamounts and panthers, among dozens of other local names. To use the terms �stern coyote” (or northeastern coyote) and 𠇌oywolf” as synonyms seems highly valid to me.

Is eastern coyote even an accurate term?

It’s worth noting that coyote populations in eastern North America continue to change. Indeed, we recently questioned if the generic term �stern coyote” is even accurate or appropriate considering that colonizing 𠇌oyotes” in eastern North America are considerably different from each other.

Southeastern coyotes are more coyote-like compared to northeastern coyotes/coywolves, and coyotes in the mid-Atlantic region have medium amounts of wolf intermixing, or introgression, compared with more typical western coyotes in the southeast that have little wolf but some domestic dog admixture. Comparatively, coywolves in the northeast are more wolf-like.

There is also the possibility that coywolves in the northeast will eventually become genetically swamped by western coyote genes from the south and west. Eastern coyotes from the mid-Atlantic area, which are more coyote-like and less wolf-like, have recently contacted the coywolf in the west part of its range, which could affect the makeup of the populations in the eastern U.S.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether this entity will remain distinct, which could influence future discussions of its taxonomy.

Why does it all matter anyway?

In the long run, does it really matter what we call this animal?

Science, at its best, is self-correcting, and new science often leads one in new directions. As biologists, we are charged with accurately describing natural systems, and for this reason alone it is important that we accurately characterize (and even debate about) the systems that we are studying. The more I investigate the coywolf, the more I realize it is different than other canids, including western coyotes.

Perhaps the most important finding from our recent paper is that new species status, Canis oriens, is warranted for this cool creature. While there may be continued controversy over the simple naming scheme of this canid, the premises in this paper better explain why coywolf is an appropriate term to use moving forward.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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