Sunday, January 28, 2018

With wolf DNA in their genes, Eastern Coyotes may be taking on more ‘wolf-like’ traits

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 how they may be growing increasingly similar to wolves.
The hybrid carnivore has expanded its territory and thrived over the past eight decades, and increasingly wolf-like 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, scientists and wildlife advocates said.
“We now have a novel, large canid to take over that new role,” said Robert Crabtree, chief scientist of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Montana. “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 said. The genetic changes bode well for their ability to keep thriving in highly populated areas including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, as well as deer-rich woodlands. And it could ultimately mean the coyotes graduate to top predator on the East Coast — a role played by wolves long ago but which is no longer occupied by a single dominant species.
The Eastern coyote is one of 19 subspecies of coyote -- adaptable predators that live everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to Florida swamps. Canis latrans, the Eastern variety, ranges as far west as Ohio. It is thought to have evolved quickly in lower Ontario and Quebec when Western coyotes mated with stressed Eastern timber wolves around the turn of the 20th century. Hybridization with wolves gave Eastern coyotes their size and weight -- they average about 35 pounds compared to the 25 pounds of the Western subspecies.
Coyotes expanded their range into the American Northeast some 80 years ago, sweeping southward through the Appalachians. Eastern coyotes no longer overlap with wolves, which are long gone from the East save for the rare and endangered red wolf of the Deep South. But the coyotes 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, he said. 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.
Scientists see evidence that the wolf DNA is increasingly helping the Eastern coyotes survive, Kays said. And in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, they’re growing in number. Population estimates of Eastern coyotes are hard to come by, but Kays said there are likely more than a million.
Reports about coyotes living in urban areas from Boston to New York’s Central Park have accelerated in recent years. Unconfirmed glimpses have been reported in many of Pittsburgh’s 90 distinct neighborhoods, and the state Game Commission says the animals are likely to live in or near most city parks, and are confirmed in all Allegheny County parks.
In 2008 a woman walking her dog off-trail in North Park was terrified when a family of coyotes attacked the pet. In 2010 a coyote was shot on Mount Washington -- a legal kill by Game Commission standards but frowned upon at the time by Pittsburgh police. Municipal officials in the North Hills get routine coyote complaints, and in 2015 Ross held a community forum to discuss increased coyote sightings.
Just 25 pet deaths attributed to coyotes were confirmed in Pennsylvania in 2012, but a Game Commission source said the actual number is probably extremely high. In 2014 a state legislator attempted to create a $25-per-pelt coyote bounty after neighbors complained their outside pets weren’t making it back home. The losses were blamed on coyote predation.
But fears that coyotes could become a bigger threat, especially to people, are largely unfounded, said Camilla Fox, executive director of California-based Project Coyote. The animals are generally timid around humans -- the only documented fatal Eastern coyote attack occurred in 2009 in Nova Scotia when a 19-year-old Canadian man was mauled by coyotes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that the numbers 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 agency reported.
“If we leave them alone, they will self-regulate,” Fox said.
Eastern coyotes take a large number of white-tailed fawns in spring, but it’s believed their ability to take down mature deer is limited to the old, injured and snowbound. Coyotes will have a greater chance of survival if they gain greater access to the deer, said scientists. Abundant large food sources such as deer would give offspring a better chance of survival, leading to healthy new generations of large, wolf-like coyotes, Kays said.
“Are they going to get a little bigger? Maybe,” he said.
The wolf-like appearance of Eastern coyotes has motivated some people to dub them “coywolves.” Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, wants them to be 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.”
Pennsylvania’s liberal coyote hunting regulations include a year-round open season and no harvest limits. The 2017-18 coyote steel trap season extends from Oct. 22 through Feb. 18 with no limit, and the cable restraint season runs Dec. 26 through Feb. 18, no limit.
But coyote management through legal hunting doesn’t work. Few hunters target coyotes except during organized coyote derbies, usually held in January and February. The number of trappers continues to drop and the market for Eastern coyote pelts is fluxuates from $30 down to just $6. Game Commission furtaker biologist Tom Hardisky said in 2016 the coyote's density and range were "almost maxed out," adding, "They're everywhere. We're at the point where there's nothing we can do to change the number of coyotes out there."
Wildlife authorities are interested in finding what additional wolf-like 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,” he said, “that’s where it really gets interesting.”

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