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coyote wolf cross.PNG

An F1 cross between a gray wolf and a coyote that was produced through artificial insemination.

A few months ago, I wrote about a discovery that two species of howler monkey have evolved greater genetic divergence in a hybridization zone in southern Mexico. The hybrids were less fit to survive or reproduce, so natural selection has favored those individuals in both species that were genetically more divergent where their ranges overlap. This phenomenon, known as “reinforcement,” is a powerful tool that maintains both species as distinct.

I have been thinking about how this phenomenon may have played out in wolf evolution in North America.  We have found that gray wolves across North America have at least some amount of coyote introgression, which has been revealed in several full genome comparisons.

The wolves that have most evidence of coyote introgression are those that live in areas that were not in the historic range of coyotes, while those with the least coyote introgression tend to be in the areas where gray wolves and coyotes were sympatric.

It is possible that something like reinforcement went on with wolves and coyotes living in the West. Hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes were probably less likely to be able to bring down large prey or were too large to live on small game, which is the staple diet of most Western coyotes. Over time, reinforcement through natural selection could have caused greater genetic differences between Western wolves and coyotes, and Eastern wolves were without coyote and thus never developed these greater genetic differences.

When coyotes came into the East, they mated with relict wolves, so that we now have whole populations of wolf with significant coyote ancestry.

Now, this idea is not one that I find entirely convincing. One is that ancient mitochrondrial DNA analysis from wolves in the East suggests they had coyote-like MtDNA, which, of course, leads to the idea that the wolves of the East were a distinct species.

Further, the discovery of the recent origins of the coyote makes all of this much more murky.  Again, reinforcement is a process that is only just now being sussed out in the literature, and gray wolves and coyotes are unique in how much introgression exists between them.  Their hybridization has essentially been documented across a continent. The only wolves that have no evidence of coyote ancestry live on the Queen Elizabeth Islands of the Canadian arctic. No coyotes have ever lived on these islands, so they have never introgressed into the wolf population.

The howler monkeys in the reinforcement study hybridize only along a narrow zone in the Mexican state of Tabasco. They are also much more genetically distinct than wolves and coyotes are. The monkeys diverged 3 million years ago, but the current estimate of when gray wolves and coyotes shared a common ancestor is around 50,000 years ago.

So gray wolf and coyote “speciation” is a lot more complex than the issues surrounding these monkeys.

But reinforcement is something to think about, even if it doesn’t fit the paradigm exactly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I purchased a diaphragm coyote call a few months ago from MFK. I wanted to liven up the blog with some possible coyote photos and videos, and coyote hunting is one of those things I’ve always wanted to try.

It’s much harder than it looks, especially if the coyotes in your area don’t howl that much and are generally unresponsive to howls and other vocalizations.

However, I eventually did get lucky. I set up about 100 feet deeper down an Allegheny bench. I howled three times and let loose a few bitch-in-estrus whimpers.

I noticed some movement to my right. Something yellow was advancing across the bench opposite mine across a small ravine.

That’s when I knew it. I had a coyote coming in. I just got ready for him to come up from the ravine. What follows is, well, pretty hard to believe. If I didn’t have the photos and the video proof, I still wouldn’t believe it.

This is not a zoo animal. This is backwoods West Virginia, and this is a very wild Eastern coyote from a population that is as pressured as any on the East Coast.

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So calm and relaxed that he stops to scratch an itch!

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He paced around me for about ten minutes. He was looking for the bitch. If he started to wander off, I would just whimper a bit through the diaphragm, and he’d come back.

This is one of those moments when you realize how great it is to be alive.

Too look into those wild yet sagacious brush wolf eyes is to be taken back to a time when the only dogs were wild ones.

It was  my pleasure to have had this opportunity.

I met a wild one.

And it doesn’t seem real.

 

 

 

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The coyote pair came back last night as the snow fell:

I hope she survives long enough to have pups and raise them.

It looks like she has a good mate. The relatively extreme monogamy in coyotes does have its benefits.

 

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I finally got that coyote pair together on the trail camera. The bad news is that bitch has a bad injury to one of her front feet, perhaps the result of a trap injury. The good news is her mate is a big playful rascal, who is giving me the best coyote footage I’ve been able to get.

Here are the two videos:

I love coyotes, but they are the hardest animals to catch on trail camera. I knew they had been messing with the deer hide and skull that I’ve left out there all winter, so I set up the camera and waited.

The Moultrie 1100i camera doesn’t alert the coyotes at all.

If you want to get coyotes on a trail camera, you need to get one that makes very little noise and doesn’t have flashing lights.  Most of the models that you can buy for taking photos of white-tailed deer– which really aren’t that cautious by comparison– will not work for coyotes.

Coyotes live by always being afraid, so I’m really amazed to get this footage of a pair of coyotes relaxing and being dogs.

Yes. They are so doggy.  These videos prove it.

I really hope the bitch is able to adjust to her disability, but the wild is not a friendly place. It actually makes me wince to watch her scooting along on three legs.

Poor old girl.

 

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Coyote sign

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And the old dog himself:

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coyote  eastern

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.

This has led Roland Kays, one of the world’s leading authorities on coyote and wolf genetics (and one of the discoverers of the olinguito), to write this piece in The ConservationHe writes:

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.

Yes!

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.

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I’m always excited when I get a coyote on the trail camera. Coyotes here are elusive, There is no closed season on them, and humans here are armed and hate coyotes. Ever since we met up with coyotes, the selection pressures have been for a sort of cunning paranoia.  This one spent more time sniffing around than the other ones I’ve been able to catch on camera. The Primos camera make so much noise and flash so much light that they quickly scare off more elusive predators. The new Moultrie 1100i did the job well.

I should note that when i first got the thumbnail of this video, I was certain that I’d got yet another opossum on it. Opossums are interesting in their own freaky way, but they aren’t interesting enough to get posted here.

But it’s nice to get a brush wolf, my highest value target.

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