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EMBARK: The eastern coyote quandary

October 13, 2015
By SHAUN KITTLE - Embark (skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

Stories of terrified people being chased from the moonlit forest by wolves and coy dogs are rampant in the Adirondacks.

Those who've seen or heard these creatures swear they're real. Those who haven't are often skeptical. After all, there aren't wolves in the Adirondacks, right?

New research suggests otherwise, but it's not that black-and-white.

Article Photos

Eastern Coyote
Photo courtesy of www.ForestWander.com

Linda Rutledge, a post-doctoral researcher and biology instructor at Trent University, wanted to go beyond the physical attributes of Adirondack canids and instead determine their genetic makeup. She provided her findings in an article published this year, and they're similar to those found by Javier Monzon, an assistant professor of biology at Pepperdine University in California, who also investigated eastern coyote genetics in 2012 while teaching at SUNY Potsdam. His paper was published last year.

The scientists' answer to the coyote-coydog-wolf question almost seems inconclusive, but it's not. They essentially determined that, in a way, everyone is right.

It turns out eastern coyotes are a hybrid of eastern wolves and western coyotes. Monzon's research also suggests that the animals carry domestic dog genes - more on that later.

Fact Box

Eastern coyote

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SCIENTIFIC NAME: Canis latrans

TYPE: Mammal

DIET: Omnivorous: Whitetail deer, rabbits, small mammals, raccoons, groundhogs, birds, insects and plant materials.

SIZE: 4 to 5 feet long, up to 20 inches high at the shoulder

WEIGHT: 35 to 50 pounds

AVERAGE LIFESPAN: 6 to 8 years

RANGE: In the U.S.: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the

New England states. In Canada: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick,

Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador.

First there's the story of western coyotes, a species that's smaller and more fox-like than their eastern counterparts, mating with eastern wolves, which live in Canada.

"Eastern coyotes are different than western coyotes without question," Rutledge said. "There's this hybridization event that happened 100 years ago, but there is some argument about what it was with. We say it was with an eastern wolf, others say it was with a gray wolf."

Either way, there is no question regarding the larger size of eastern coyotes, something they probably inherited from their wolf genes. Variation in the way individuals look, along with what people call them, has probably created the most confusion as to what the creature is.

Eastern coyotes have been called things like brush wolf, tweed wolf, coy wolf and coy dog. Similarly, eastern wolves have been called Great Lakes wolf, Great Lakes boreal wolf, eastern Canadian wolf, gray-wolf subspecies and eastern timber wolf.

"There is a lot of terminology in what we call these critters, and it makes it very confusing," Rutledge said. "Not only do people call them different things, but they've been called different things over time."

Rutledge said eastern coyotes could evolve to become an effective top predator in the east, and her concern now is how they're managed as a species.

She explained that the first question when assessing a species is to determine whether it's taxonomically valid, which opens a can of worms because scientists have differing opinions on what defines a species. Before genetics, viability was the answer. Simply put, if the offspring of two individuals could reproduce, it belonged to a species.

A classic example is a horse and a donkey, which produce a mule when they mate. Since mules are almost always sterile, the animal is called a "sterile hybrid" instead of a species.

"With genetics and everything that's come out about what can interbreed and what kinds of things can produce viable offspring, it's changed how we define species," Rutledge said. "Perhaps conservation needs to catch up with that model and move away from the species concept because it's getting very difficult. Maybe it should be based more on what's evolutionarily important or what's able to adapt to change."

Regardless of where that debate goes, Rutledge wants to keep predators like eastern coyotes and eastern wolves on the landscape. The potential problem is that hybrids are often dealt with differently than species when assigning statuses like threatened and endangered.

That's currentlly not a big deal for coyotes, which are abundant, but it is for eastern wolves, which Rutledge said are also a hybrid. When the Canadian government dubbed eastern wolves a species, the animal was added to the threatened species list.

"Eastern coyotes are extremely well adapted to the human landscape, which is why they're doing so well in North America," Rutledge said. "It's largely a human-dominated landscape, and they're probably the best predator for that landscape with the way it is. The idea of eastern coyotes as being this new potential predator in the east is an interesting evolutionary question of where they came from and where they're going."

Rutledge said there is some evidence that suggests breeding between male dogs and female eastern coyotes, but that probably happened in the mid-1900s.

"There seems to be a bit of lingering evidence of a dog, but whether or not that has any impact on the population, in my opinion, has yet to be shown," Rutledge said.

Monzon had a different take on that. He sampled coyotes from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, southern Quebec and New England states up through Maine, and studied their genes and the effects of the landscape on the species.

"We already knew that eastern coyotes had a little bit of wolf and a little bit of dog in them, but no one knew how much," Monzon said. "In 407 eastern coyotes that I inspected, 100 percent of them had both wolf and dog DNA."

Broken down, Monzon found that the average eastern coyote is about 65 percent western coyote, 25 percent wolf - about half western gray wolf and half eastern wolf - and 10 percent dog, but there were variations in that.

One part of the hybridization study looked at deer density, and Monzon found that coyotes taken from areas with a greater deer density had a higher percentage of wolf genes.

"We infer from that pattern that a greater proportion of wolf DNA in any individual makes that individual more capable of exploiting that resource, in this case a whitetail deer," Monzon said.

Genetic findings aside, Monzon agreed with Rutledge that defining hybrids as species is important for conservation. He said he expects more hybrids will be discovered as climate change shifts the ranges of different species, causing them to overlap.

"It was always thought that hybridization is always detrimental, and it is true that sometimes hybridization sometimes results in infertile or nonviable offspring," Monzon said. "The eastern coyote is well-suited for living in the Adirondack region, and that is a neat example of hybridization generating an organism that appears to be fitter than its parental species, something we call hybrid vigor."

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[This article appears in the October-November issue of Embark. Embark is a free, bi-monthly publication that focuses on outdoors-related topics in the Adirondack Park. Embark is published by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Lake Placid News.]

 
 
 

 

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