Naturalists, wildlife biologists, hunters and others have long been aware of differences between the eastern coyote, which has become increasingly common not only in the rural areas of the northeast, but in the suburbs and cities as well, and their western cousins. Whereas the western coyotes tend to be smaller, hunt individually, and feed primarily on mice and other small rodents, the eastern coyotes are larger, hunt in pairs or packs, and go after larger game, such as deer.
The question had been whether this was simply an example of species adaptation or a different animal. Now, with extensive DNA testing and study, that question has been answered.
In research that was published earlier this fall in the journal Biology Letters, scientists
at the New York State Museum have found that the eastern coyotes are carrying genes derived from wolves. In addition, skull measurements more closely approximate wolf skulls than coyote skulls. All this means that the two species have been interbreeding, apparently in the Great Lakes region, and spreading eastward.
This newly-identified hybrid should not be confused with two other possible hybrids – the coydog and dogwolf. While the two other hybrids are biologically possible, and have been known to occur in captivity, they are extremely rare in the wild, and the known offspring have generally not been healthy.
The study identifying this new hybrid answers one question, but it raises several others. The finding could hamper efforts to protect some wolf species, since if they are found to be carrying coyote genes, they too, could be considered hybrids. Most endangered species protections apply only to “genetically-pure” animals, not hybrids.
Some wildlife biologists
see the coywolf as filling a valuable niche by keeping a burgeoning deer population under control, for example. At the same time, incidents between coyotes – now possibly coywolves – and human have been increasing both in number and seriousness.
A month ago, a 19-year-old Toronto woman was killed by a pair of coyotes while hiking on Cape Breton. Those animals were not officially identified as coywolves, but a description of their behavior would suggest that they might have been.
Wildlife officials continue to advise people to use caution, make plenty of noise to scare off the coyotes/coywolves, and by all means don’t feed them.