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Posts Tagged ‘Central American coyotes’

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am quite critical of Dan Flores’s Coyote America, a book that has been hailed as a sort of definitive source for the natural and cultural history of the animal. The good parts are where the author talks about native peoples and their relationship and understanding of the animal. The bad parts are where he misrepresents the molecular research on coyote evolution, most notably where he contends the genetic difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is equivalent to that of humans and orangutans (page 27, if you’re looking for it). I’ll give Flores a pass in that he didn’t do his research for the book until after the coyote, gray wolf, Eastern wolf, and red wolf genome comparisons came out, and found that all these animals were as closely related to each other as humans from different continental origins.

But I don’t know of anyone who thought that coyotes are to wolves what humans are to orangutans. At best, we thought coyotes were to wolves what our species of human was to Neanderthals.

So that was my beginning of great distrust in Flores’s account of how coyotes evolved in North America.

I do remember one part that I thought might have been true, simply because it mirrors the way coyotes moved into the eastern parts of North America. Flores contends that coyotes did not make it into Southern Mexico and Central America until after European colonization took place. The clearing of the tropical forests and the introduction of sheep and goats made all of this possible.

This made sense to me, but then I thought, well, I should look it up.

It turns out that Flores was dead wrong about Southern Mexican and Central American coyote populations. A 2004 paper that looked at the paleontology and sixteenth century accounts of coyotes in the region found that coyotes were in the region before European conquest.

So coyotes have lived in Guatemala and El Salvador long before Europeans felled the forests and turned out sheep and goats. Their recent range expansion into southern Panama may eventually lead to their arrival in Colombia, and they will have the Southern Continent to colonize.

This book gets so many facts wrong about the evolution and natural history of coyotes that I do worry a lot about its impact. It is written as a popular natural history, so it needs to be understood in that vein. However, the author seemed to choose which scientific facts he wanted to present without looking deeper into the fullness of the literature that exists on them.

And as a natural history writer, I find such errors to be problematic, but I always find some way to make sure you know that I am not the final authority on any subject. Because I blog, I can show you my evolution in thought more easily. Books are far more permanent inscriptions. That’s why you will see me hedge about certain subjects where I know more research is being done, such as what the African golden wolf actually is or where dog domestication happened.

The challenge is to make natural history subjects interest and to make your interpretations fit the literature, both of science and of prose.

And yes, it took me a month to read Flores’s coyote book. I had that many problems with it.

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Coyotes are the most widespread wild dogs in North America.

In fact, I don’t know of a single species of wild dog whose range is almost the entire continent.

Coyotes are from from eastern Canada, including Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, west to Alaska.

They are found in every state in the Lower 48.

And their range continues south through Mexico.

It just keeps going south until, well, you run out of North America.

The southernmost Coyotes are found in Panama, specifically the Azuero Peninsula.

We North Americans tend to count Panama as part of our continent, although as a former region of Colombia, it has been counted as part of South America.

If this is North America, then this is the southernmost part of our continent, and these are the southernmost coyotes.

They are quite small animals, often under 20 pounds in weight.  Compared with the coyotes I normally see, these animals are quite minuscule, almost like a different species.

It was often said that the coyote would never make it to Alaska or Newfoundland, and now coyotes live in both places and are doing fairly well.

I wonder how far south coyotes will actually go.

I would not be surprised if they made to Colombia and eventually became settled in the northern parts of South America.

Such is the case with the gray fox, which also has a vast range in the Americas. It is not common north of  the US/Canadian border, so its range is not nearly as extensive as the coyote. But because it is found over such a wide area, it might be an interesting parallel to see exactly how far south the coyote will go.

Of course these Panamanian coyotes have to get past the Panama Canal, but coyotes seem to be able to deal with the most extreme human interference on the landscape, including places like New York and Los Angeles. All of that canal traffic should be that much of an obstacle.

Plus, coyotes can swim.

And walk across bridges.

I’m not counting the possibility of Colombian coyotes out.

Not by a long shot.

***

Coyotes would not be the first member the genus Canis to invade South America through the Isthmus of Panama.

The extinct dire wolf evolved on the North American plains and then invaded South America.

If the coyote makes it in Colombia, it would following in the footsteps of its massive cousin that went extinct at the end of the last ice age.

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