I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been seen this article from The Economist, claiming that we’re seeing the evolution of a new species of canid that is a hybrid coyote and wolf.
It’s interesting, but I don’t think that just because we have a coyote that has hybridized with wolves and domestic dogs means that a new species is suddenly evolving. Rather, it’s a good example of how some introgression with a related species can provide some potential benefits to a species as it enters new ecosystems.
But the popular naming of this animal is coywolf. To me that suggests that the animals is a 50/50 mix, but the closest we have to 50/50 animals that are 50/50 coyote and wolf crosses are those in parts of Ontario, especially Algonquin Park. Those wolves are around 60 percent wolf and 40 percent coyote .
Most Eastern coyotes are still overwhelmingly coyote in ancestry.
Coyotes in the Northeast are mostly (60%-84%) coyote, with lesser amounts of wolf (8%-25%) and dog (8%-11%). Start moving south or east and this mixture slowly changes. Virginia animals average more dog than wolf (85%:2%:13% coyote:wolf:dog) while coyotes from the Deep South had just a dash of wolf and dog genes mixed in (91%:4%:5% coyote:wolf:dog). Tests show that there are no animals that are just coyote and wolf (that is, a coywolf), and some eastern coyotes that have almost no wolf at all.
My little quibble, which is more a gentlemen’s disagreement, is that dogs are part of Canis lupus in the same way that Pekin duck is part of Anas platyrhynchos. They are just domestic variants of a widespread wild species. Pekin ducks have lost most of their brooding instincts, which means they don’t exist anywhere but captivity. One could say the same thing about bulldogs, which usually cannot free-whelp. They simply wouldn’t exist in the wild, but I think that doesn’t give them a distinct species status.
However, even if we count the dog content in Eastern coyotes as wolves, they are still overwhelmingly coyote in their genetic makeup. If that’s the case, then I think it’s much more fair to call them Eastern coyotes.
If you’re going to call this a coywolf, then you’re going to have call yourself (if you’re not of Sub-Saharan African ancestry) a “humadenisothal.” That’s because modern humans who have origins out of Sub-Saharan Africa have Neanderthal in them, and those who have ancestry in Melanesia and Australia have genes from the now extinct Denisova hominin. All of us are still overwhelmingly Homo sapiens in ancestry, but some humans have the genes of other extinct hominins. It doesn’t mean that we’re all different species. It’s just that different populations have experienced introgression.
Kays is very cognizant of the issues around calling this animal a “coywolf”:
There are many examples of bad animal names that cause a lot of confusion.
The fisher is a large type of weasel that does not eat fish (it prefers porcupines). The mountain beaver of the Pacific Northwest is not a beaver and does not live in the mountains. And then there’s the sperm whale…
We don’t get many opportunities to name new animals in the 21st century. We shouldn’t let the media mess up this one by declaring it a new species called the coywolf. Yes, there are wolf genes in some populations, but there are also eastern coyotes with almost no wolf genes, and others that have as much dog mixed in as they do wolf. “Coywolf” is an inaccurate name that causes confusion.
The coyote has not evolved into a new species over the last century. Hybridization and expansion have created a host of new coyote variations in the east, and evolution is still sorting these out. Gene flow continues in all directions, keeping things mixed up, and leading to continual variation over their range, with no discrete boundaries.
Could evolution eventually lead to a coyote so specialized for eastern forests that they would be considered a unique species? Yes, but for this to happen, they would have to cut off gene flow with nonhybrid animals, leading to distinct types of coyotes that (almost) never interbreed. I think we are a long way from this possibility.
For now, we have the eastern coyote, an exciting new type of coyote in the midst of an amazing evolutionary transition. Call it a distinct “subspecies,” call it an “ecomorph,” or call it by its scientific name Canis latrans var. But don’t call it a new species, and please, don’t call it the coywolf.
However, if we want to make things more confusing. We’ve gone down this path of naming all sorts of wild dogs “wolves” for quite some time now. The Falklands wolf or warrah was actually closely related to the maned or “red” wolf. “Red wolf” is the direct translation from the Russian for the animal we call a dhole, and one way to interpret the scientific name of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is “painted wolf.”
Coyotes are very closely related to wolves and dogs. They are something like 99.3 percent genetically similar.
And now that we’ve started to use molecular data to classify the dog family, we’ve generated several new “wolves” that aren’t part of Canis lupus. For example, when I was a child, Canis simensis was the Simien jackal. Mitochondrial DNA analysis suggested it was closer to wolves than other African canids, so we started calling it the Ethiopian wolf. Now we know it’s not that closely related to Canis lupus, but we still call it by that name. My guess is that it is easier to get people interested in conserving a unique form of wolf than it is to get people to want to conserve a uniqiue form of jackal.
We also now know that African golden jackals are more closely related to wolves and coyotes than to Eurasian golden jackals, and we’re now moving to calling African golden jackals “golden wolves” (Canis anthus).
However, if we start calling the African canids “golden wolves,” why aren’t we calling the coyote something like “the lesser North American wolf.” A coyote is much more closely related to Canis lupus than the golden wolves of Africa are.
So you can see that it’s not that trivial what we call this animal.
Of course, calling the Eastern coyote a “coywolf” just adds to the mystique of this animal, and it certainly has plenty of mystique.
Most people in the US don’t live near any wolves. The last wolf in West Virginia was killed around the year 1900. The nearest wolves to me are in Michigan’s lower Peninsula, where they were discovered just a few months ago.
Yet we’ve come to think of wolves as a symbol of the wilderness we’ve lost.
So when the media says that we have “coywolves” running around, then it makes us feel that some of that wild mystery is running about.
Well, it certainly is, but using this term doesn’t help our understanding of what is happening.