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Something to admire about a coyote

coyote

Whenever this civilization met coyotes, be at Jamestown, the Indiana frontier, or along the Missouri River, our relations with them were not cordial. We came out of Europe. Europe had waged war on wolves, where wolf attacks on people and livestock were certainly a problem, but in the lands that became the United States, predators were cleared off.  The bigger forms of wolf held on in northern Minnesota and in the Texas and Louisiana pine woods.

The lead flew at the wolfy kind. So did the steel trap and poison. The coursing dog did its work, as did the tracking hound and the big grappling hunting bulldog or mastiff.

And the coyote, instead of becoming reduced to a mere relict range, wound up colonizing a whole continent. Coyotes are in Newfoundland and Alaska. They have expanded to the south as well, and now coyotes rest at the edge of the swamps of Darien in Panama. Beyond those swamps lies Colombia and a whole new continent to wander through.

This little wolf, which once picked at the dire wolf and Smilodon’s kills, thrives because of our persecution. We have killed countless numbers of coyotes over the years, and they now live nicely in virtually every city in the country. Everyone lives near coyotes now. They don’t have to worry about larger predators driving them or killing them. They can live nicely on garbage and cats and the fruit from our ornamental trees.

There is something to admire about an animal that thrives in part because we’ve changed the ecosystems so much. The coyote is the biggest and most charismatic (and the most problematic) of these species, but the raccoon, the red fox, the skunk, the barred owl, and the opossum have all had their fortunes rise as we have “settled” this continent.

They are these barbarous dogs, unchained, uncollared, and untrained, that come slipping in.  We hate their liberty in the same way we hate a free-roaming dog, but we hate them more because they are the wolf we just couldn’t kill off.

We tried. Their biology just laughed at our vain attempts. And they are here, there, and everywhere to stay as the Anthropocene trundles on.

They got their start running the jackrabbits, which is one reason they can run with the swiftness and agility of a sighthound, and now, in their current hybrid “Eastern” form, they moved from lifting fawns from the coverts and have grown bigger and more wolfy to run down the adults.

This is a thriving beast, a utilitarian model that can live as a mousing fox, a scavenging jackal, or pack up and hunt like a proper wolf.

And you have to admire that versatility, that cunning, even if you hate them with every fiber of your being.

They got us buffaloed. And we didn’t see it coming.  It got our goat, because it watched where we tied it up.

 

 

 

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coyote killing cat

An analysis of coyote feces from various parts of Southern California has revealed something rather shocking.  Yes, coyotes are coming into people’s lawns and cultivated gardens and eating lots of fruit, but the analysis revealed that cats comprise 20 percent of their diet in urban areas.

This is in direct contradiction of Dan Flores’s contention that coyotes usually just kill cats because they are competitors and leave their carcasses to rot in the sun.  He makes this claim in both Coyote America and made it again on Joe Rogan’s podcast.   If cats comprise 20 percent of their diet, coyotes clearly are targeting them as a prey species.

If one thinks about it carefully, cats are about the best meat a coyote can get in most urban environments.  Where there is civilization, there are many cats. and when you’re  a 25-30 pound coyote, an 8-10 pound cat would sustain you for some time. Most indoor-outdoor cats somewhat fat and usually lack any skills for living in anything like “the wild,” so of course, coyotes are going to target cats.

One of the authors of the new study is Justin Brown, who also appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast after Dan Flores. I much preferred the discussion with Justin Brown, who was polite and knowledgeable about urban carnivorans, but it was obvious that he disagreed with some Flores’s airy-fairy ideas about coyotes.

Indeed, I think the reason why Flores’s book about coyotes gets so much attention is that it does present the coyote in a way that sanitizes it from what it really is. Coyotes are predators. They do kill sheep. They do kill dogs. They do take cats. They have killed people, including fully adult Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia.

These facts should not make us want to exterminate coyotes. Indeed, when someone says they want to do such a thing, I wonder if they might have come up with a more realistic goal in life like blowing up the sun or draining the ocean.

We err when we turn coyotes into terrible predators that deserve only death, but we also err when we turn them into the prick-eared Labradors of nature.

We should admire the coyote as the one of those Anthropocene wolves, a sort of North American super wolf that has thrived in spite of our attempts to eradicate it from the landscape. We have to adjust our behavior to live with them. Not letting cats go outside is probably a good idea, not just for their own welfare but for the welfare of lots of native species that cats target in their hunting forays.

We also need to understand that livestock producers must deal with coyote depredations.  Yes, we can encourage them to use nonlethal methods.  However, we shouldn’t be as judgmental of someone killing the odd one to protect livestock.

So yes, we now have evidence that coyotes are targeting cats in urban environments. If we love our cats, we’ll keep them inside. Cats don’t need to be outside to be happy, and they will never become a coyote’s breakfast if they stay where the Old Song Dog won’t be able to catch them.

This shouldn’t have been much of a shock. A similar study in 2009 in Tucson, revealed that 42 percent of an urban coyote’s diet consisted of cat meat.

The discrepancy in these two studies probably comes from the fact that coyote predation upon cats has become much better known by the public in the past decade, and Californians probably have at least heard of the studies that show how many birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians cats kill every year.

So yes, if you let your cat outside, you are taking risks. Some people think it’s worth it.  That’s okay, but don’t blame the coyotes for doing what comes naturally. They are trying to survive in an human dominated world, and you’re providing them with an easy, nutritious prey source.

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coyotes

Humans and the various canids belonging to gray wolf species complex possess the most complex relationship of any two beings currently living on this earth.  At one point, they are our cherished companions, often closer to us than we ever could be with other people, and on another point, they are the reviled predators that might take a child in the night.

We have clearly defined relationships with other predators. Leopards and cougars, well, we might hunt them for sport or photograph them in the wild. But we never become closely aligned with them, except for those eccentrics who dare to keep such dangerous predators as pets.

People living in the Eurasian Pleistocene brought some wolves into their societies.  Wolves and humans should have been competitors. We should have had the same relationship with each other as spotted hyenas and lions do in Africa now.  But at some point, humans allowed wolves in.

Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg demonstrate that many humans throughout the world have had some kind of relationship with wolves. In some cases, it is or was a hunting symbiosis. In others, they were totemic animals.

In their work, Pierotti and Fogg contend that the relationship between humans and wolves broke down with the rise of Christianity in the West. I don’t think that’s when it broke down. It started to become complex when humans began to herd sheep and goats.

In Kazakhstan, wolves are hunted and revered at the same time. The Kazakh people herd  livestock, so they must always worry about wolf predation. Stephen Bodio documents this complex understanding of wolves in his The Hounds of Heaven.

“They hunt them, kill them, chase them with hounds and even eagles, take puppies and rear them live, identify with them, make war on them, and claim descent from them,” writes Bodio. This description sort of fits modern humanity’s entire relationship with this gray wolf complex. We pretty much have done and continue do almost all of these things.

Wolves, coyotes, and dingoes have killed people. So have domestic dogs. In the French countryside, wolf hunts were considered a necessity to protect human life, largely because has the longest and best documented history of wolves hunting people. The dispossession of rural peasants and the depletion of game in the forests created conditions where wolves would consider humans easy prey.  Lots of European countries have similar stories. And when Europeans came to North America, they knew about the dangerous nature of wolves, even if they had never even seen one themselves.

Humans have declared war on wolves in Eurasia and in North America. The wolf is extirpated from much of its former range in Europe. They live only over a limited range in the lower 48 of the United States.

Man fought the coyote with the same venom and lead he threw at the wolf. The coyote’s flexible biology and social behavior meant that all that effort would come for naught.  The coyotes got slaughtered, but they rebounded. And then some. And the excess coyote pups found new habitat opened up with big ol’ wolves gone, and they have conquered a continent, while we continue our flinging of lead and setting of traps.

In Victorian times, Western man elevated the domestic dog to levels not seen for a domestic animals. They became sentient servants, beloved friends, animals that deserve humanity’s best treatment.

And in the modern era, where fewer and fewer Westerners are having children, the dog has come to replace the child in the household. Billions of dollars are spent on dog accessories and food in the West.  Large sectors of our agriculture are ultimately being used to feed our sacred creatures.

A vast cultural divide has come to the fore as humans realize that wolves and coyotes are the dog’s wild kin. Wolves have become avatars for wilderness and conservation, and coyotes have become the wolves you might see out your front window.

Millions of Americans want to see the wolf and the coyote protected in some way. Dogs of nature, that’s the way they see them.

The rancher and the big game hunter see both as robbers taking away a bit of their livelihood. Humans are lions. The canids are the spotted hyenas. And their only natural state is at enmity.

Mankind’s relationship to these beings is so strangely complex. It greatly mirrors our relationship towards each other. We can be loving and generous with members of our own species. We can also be racist and bigoted and hateful. We can make death camps as easily as we can make functioning welfare states.

And these animals relationships with each other are just as complex. Wolves usually kill dogs and coyotes they find roaming their territories. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they become friends, even mates.  Hounds can be trained to run down a coyote, but sometimes, the coyote and the dog become lovers in the forest.

Social, opportunistic predators that exist at this level of success are going to be a series of contradictions. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes certainly are. And so are we.

It is what we both do. And always will.

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black coyote

For most of my life, scientists believed that the present era was still the Holocene.  Glaciers retreated with a global warming trend around 11, 650. Man went from being the apex predator over much of the world and became the apex consumer. Agriculture allowed our populations to expand, and we started to give up our wandering ways and became “civilized.”

It was generally believed that the past few centuries are but a continuation of this age, but now a growing number of scientists believe we have left the Holocene and entered into the Anthropocene. Several scholars have issues with this new distinction, but I think it is quite useful. In this era, human activity is the main factor affecting climate and ecology, which is why the age is named for the Greek word for human (anthropos).

The best argument I’ve seen for when this era began is 1610.  In this scenario, the era is dated to when European disease and conquest killed off enough Native Americans and enslaved and enough African had been enslaved to allow forests to grow back in former agrarian fields.  This process started in 1492, but by 1610, enough of those trees had grown to remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to push the planet into the Little Ice Age.

Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger have a great model for understanding dog domestication as a change in trophic strategies.  In the Pleistocene ecosystems, most wolves were mesopredators, playing second fiddle to an ecosystem full of cave lions, machairodonts, large bears, and cave hyenas. When these wolves hooked up with people, though, they hitched their wagon to the species that often behaved as the apex predators in the ecosystems.  When humans switched to agrarian lifestyles during the Holocene, humans became apex consumers, and dogs joined us as beneficiaries of being allied to that apex consumer species.  During the Holocene, many wolves became apex predators, as the cave lions and other large predators became extinct.

I’ve always liked the framework that Morey and Jeger derived in this paper, but now that we’re entering into a new geological age, maybe we need to look at the change in trophic strategies of wolves in this new age.

Morey and Jeger don’t have a good framework for what happened to wolves in the Anthropocene, but across Eurasia and North America, wolves were gone from many human-dominated landscapes by the first decades of the twentieth century.  They existed only in isolated areas in Western Europe, and in the  lower 48 states of the US, they lived only in Minnesota and in an isolated region in East Texas and Louisiana, where the taxonomically controversially red wolves were located.

Large pack-hunting wolves were really in quite a bit of trouble.  In the United States, the coyote population began to expand out of its Western core range into the Great Lakes States. They eventually made to New England and the Maritimes of Canada, and they hybridized with relict wolves and the expanding population of domestic dogs.  Coyotes eventually colonized all the Eastern states, and as they did so, they largely became the apex predators in many parts of their range.

But in the 1960s, attitudes about wolves began to change. Many nations protected wolves, and there were often introduction plans in the works.  By the early decades of the twenty-first century, wolves were making significant comebacks in Germany and Italy. The wolves in Italy were often living very much like stray domestic dogs, living large at garbage dumps. Wolves live near large cities in Germany, and how these wolves are going to adapt to living in such human dominated environments is going to be a major question for researchers.

And in throughout Eurasia, we began to see that domestic dogs were mating with wolves.  Indeed, it is now estimated that a majority of wolves in Eurasia have relatively recent dog ancestry. 

Similarly, as coyotes expanded in North America, their genes began to work their way into the wolf population.  Yes, coyotes in a large part of the US have wolf ancestry, but we also have discovered that wolves across North America have coyote ancestry. Indeed, one interesting thing about these genome comparisons is that coyotes and wolves are much more closely related than we initially gleaned form mitochondrial DNA analysis. The calculation is that the gray wolf and the coyote last shared a common ancestor around 50,000 years ago.  This recent common ancestry has a taxonomic implication, which is that coyotes are themselves a divergent form of gray wolf in much the same way domestic dogs are.

In the Anthropocene, the wolves that have done the best have been the domestic dog and the coyote. The domestic dog’s ability to ingratiate itself into human society or live very nicely as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter on the periphery of humanity is a great gift.  The coyote can live as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter as well, and it also can live very nicely as a mousing fox or pack up and hunt deer.

Gene flow among wolves, coyotes, and dogs has made these entities much more fuzzy than we once thought they were. Dog genes are working their way into both the coyote and wolf population.  Strange pelt colors are popping up in the wild animals. The black coloration in domestic dogs was conferred onto the North American wolf population during the Holocene, but this same mutation for melanism has entered the coyote and Italian wolf population in very recent years. Dogs have introduced dewclaws on the hindlegs to some wolf populations, and I have seen photos of Eastern coyotes that have those hind dewclaws as well, which likely were introduced through breeding with domestic dogs.

Coyotes in the East are evolving larger size to become better predators of deer, but becoming larger and more effective ungulate hunters will have a trade-off. As carnivorous mammals grow larger, they become more and more dependent upon large prey to survive.  Very large wolf-like coyotes will lose their ability to live well on small prey and garbage.

So in the Anthropocene, dogs remain allied to the apex consumers. Some coyotes operate as apex predators, and some wolves live as opportunistic scavengers.

And as these creatures adjust their trophic strategies in a much more predator tolerant world, the pseudo species barriers that exist among wolves, coyotes, and dogs can break down. Hybridization among these creatures is likely to be a major feature of their continued evolution, a definite feature and not a bug.

These canids  thus make the leap with us into this human dominated age, an age that is experiencing a mass extinction of amphibians and great retrenchment of large sharks and big cats.

Yet they are still there. Evolving as the winds change. Winds that we ourselves are changing and are only now starting to understand.

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Coyotes, nature’s sighthounds

Built a lot like a lurcher.

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Why coyotes are not basal Canis

The traditional understanding of coyote evolution is that coyotes are basal wolf-like canids. This understanding comes from the hypothesis that coyotes directly evolved from Canis lepophagus in North America alone. Coyotes look and behave a lot like jackals of the Old World, and because we know that the larger wolf-like canids evolved from jackal-like ones, we just assumed that the coyote was a primitive form.

One problem with this positioning has always bothered me. Jackals tend to have proportionally smaller brains than wolves, but coyotes have proportionally larger brains than wolves. Domestic dogs have evolved smaller brains from wolves, although wolf and dog brain size comparisons aren’t as cut and dry as people think. 

No one thinks of dogs as basal forms of Canis, so it is possible for animals in this lineage to lose brain size, just as it is possible for a primitive lineage of canids known as coyotes to evolve a larger brain.

Please note that my discussion on brain size here isn’t really a discussion about intelligence, because the literature on which form is most intelligent is quite all over the map. Domestic dogs kept in Western countries in the modern way do appear to have social cognitive abilities that virtually all other species lack, while wolves are much better at working with each other to complete tasks.

But coyotes have proportionally larger brains than either wolves or dog do, and in this lineage, larger brains are generally a derived characteristic.

However, the really important data about coyote evolution is the discovery that they shared a common ancestor with gray wolves much more recently than commonly suggested. A genome-comparison study of various North American canids found that the common ancestor of both gray wolves and coyotes lived around 50,000 years ago. Because anatomically modern gray wolves replace the Mosbach wolf in the fossil record between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, the ancestor of both had to have been a form of gray wolf from Eurasia.

The coyote is thus a jackal that has evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, which means it is not a primitive canid at all. It likely evolved this jackal -like morphology and behavior because the form of gray wolf that it derives from was unable to compete with the dire wolf, the American lion, the short-faced bear and the machairodonts as a top-level predator. It was forced to evolve a smaller body that could be fed on carrion and small prey.

We know now that there is a big difference in what prey predators target once they exceed 20 kg. Predators that weigh more than that mass target large vertebrates, while those that are smaller than that weight target smaller prey. Although coyotes do cooperatively hunt deer, they primarily feed on rabbits and mice. So by becoming smaller, coyotes were not directly in conflict with dire wolves or the other large predators of Pleistocene North America.

Only through analyzing full genomes of coyotes and gray wolves did we realize that our assumptions about their evolution were wrong. Earlier studies that looked at mitochondrial DNA alone found that coyotes fit within a basal position of the wolf-like canid lineage. However, recent full genome comparison of various wolf-like canids that looked at the role hybridization played in their evolution found something interesting. The lineage that leads to wolves, dogs, and coyotes experienced some introgression from a ghost species that was closely related to the dhole. The authors think that the reason why coyotes turn up so basal in these mitochondrial DNA studies but appear so wolf-like when their full genomes are compared is coyotes have retained a mitochondrial line that comes from that ghost species.

So the generalist coyote is a re-invention out of the gray wolf lineage. It is not basal to the wolf-like canids. It just merely resembles the basal forms in some of their ecology, in some of their behavior, and in their odd mitochondrial inheritance.

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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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