In the US and Canada, there has been much discussion about how coyotes have been able to colonize so much territory. They were pretty much a Western species that was able to colonize land that had been previously occupied by wolves. We killed the wolves off and did the same with coyotes. The wolves became exceedingly rare and extirpated from much of their range. The coyote’s range expanded.
We know this well. It’s one of those wildlife stories that North Americans know well. The fact that they are found in new areas mean that it’s actually quite common for people to call them an invasive species, which is a bit erroneous. Coyote-like animals have been living North America for millions years, and this current form, which is perhaps more closely related to wolves than the previous models, is something our ecosystems have been putting up with for quite some time. Coyotes or coyote-like animals lived in the East all through the Pleistocene. the current form isn’t invasive but reclaiming lost territory.
The thing about coyotes, though, is they are expanding their range to the south as well. Most of us are aware that coyotes live in Mexico. The term coyote is derived from the Nahuatl coyotl, which supposedly means “barking dog,” and their range expanded to the south as well. The tropical forms of coyote were probably always present in southern Mexico and northern Central America, but today they are found to the eastern part of the Panama Isthmus. This eastern part is the part that attaches to South America, and should coyotes continue to expand their range in Panama, they will probably cross into Colombia. These southern coyotes are expanding along the Pan-American Highway and the expansion of cattle ranching in the region. The current thinking is they may not make it South America until and unless the highway is built across the province of Darien into Colombia, which has generally been put off as unfeasible.
I don’t know if I would put much stock into the road being the only way that coyotes get into South America, because as coyotes began this expansion south, another species of canid began its expansion north out of South America. The crab-eating fox is quite common in northern South America, and it started showing up in Panama in the 1990s. This animal is experiencing a range expansion in Colombia, using open areas around the Pan-American Highway as its habitat, just like the coyote in Panama. One recently was captured on trail camera near the Panama Canal.
That means that crab-eating foxes were able to cross the relative wilderness of Darien to get deeper in Panama.
It also means that coyotes could quite possibly cross Darien into Colombia, just as the crab-eating fox went the other way.
Much stock has been placed on the fact that coyotes prefer open habitats, but I wonder if this is missing something else that could have led this territory opening up for coyotes. Central American jaguar and cougar populations are on the decline. With the larger predators becoming rarer, smaller ones can begin to fill in, just as coyotes did when wolves were wiped out of most of the Lower 48.
Coyotes in my part of the world make use of forested habitat quite extensively. It is very rare to see one out in the open during the day, but you can see them out and about in the woods during the day. Granted, I’m talking about temperate deciduous forest, and that which exists in Panama is tropical forest. But I’d be very surprised if coyotes didn’t use the habitat.
So if the crab-eating fox is able to work its way into the North American continent a little deeper, why wouldn’t the coyote be able to go the other direction?
Further, the crab-eatng fox isn’t the only South American wild dog to wand up into Panama. The much rarer and much more elusive short-eared dog has crossed from Colombia into Darien at least once. Unlike the other two species, it is a much more forest dependent animal, so even if it were to spread, it would only be found in forests.
But the fact that something as weird and as specialized as a short-eared dog would take the baby steps pretty much would hint that something as bold as a coyote could easily take the steps in the other direction.
So dogs are moving north, and dogs are moving south.
And if the coyote makes it into Colombia, it will be the first creature from the wolf lineage (other than domestic dogs) to do so since dire wolf came into the continent. When the dire wolf came, it was a big, packing creature that readily hunted camelids and other ungulates. Now a meeker and more generalized offshoot of that lineage is working its way toward South America.
They may not make it.
But I honestly wouldn’t bet on it.
They didn’t need a road to get them from Kansas to Nova Scotia, and I bet they really don’t need a road to get them from eastern Panama into Colombia.
And after the hit South America, I think it’s quite time that Australia got a chance to enjoy coyotes. They will keep red fox numbers in check. What could possibly go wrong?