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Posts Tagged ‘coywolf’

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

Scat:

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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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Egyptian jackal or African wolf with golden jackal and wolf-like features.

Egyptian jackal or African wolf with golden jackal and wolf-like features. From “Roosevelt in Africa” (1910).

One the strange ironies about dogs is that we have set up a system in which populations are maintained without regular influxes of new blood. However, at no point in the evolutionary history was this ever the case.

Some dog fanciers maintain breeds as if they were distinct species, and in some breeds, one can find lore that they are derived from sort of wild canid that has nothing to do with wolves or the rest of dogdom. Chihuahuas are supposedly domestic variants of the fennec fox. The Japanese chin was said to be distinct species that belonged to its own genus.

But no matter how you slice it, domestic dogs are all one species, and what is even more important, the more we have found out about the genome and that of their closest relatives, the harder it becomes to think of them as a distinct species from the wolf.

And if that weren’t such a revelation, it really gets more bizarre when we have no learned that wolves, golden jackals, and coyotes are not the cut-and-dry species we assumed them to be. In Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US and Midwestern US, we have discovered that wolves and coyotes have hybridized a whole lot more than we realized. We have also found evidence that golden jackals and wolves have hybridized in Bulgaria. Both coyotes and golden jackals can cross with wolves or domestic dogs and produce fertile offspring.

To make things more complicated, it turns out that wolves and golden jackals have continued to exchange genes since the two species separated. A recent genome-wide study of modern dogs, wolves, and golden jackals revealed that Eurasian wolves and golden jackals continued to mate with each other after their initial separation. The authors found substantial gene flow between golden jackals and Israeli wolves, as well as the ancestral population to all wolves and domestic dogs.

Most North Americans are aware of the taxonomic controversies involving coyote and wolf hybrid populations, including the red wolf and the proposed “Eastern wolf” species, but it turns out that this problem also exists in the Old World.

There is now a debate as to whether certain sub-Saharan  and North African golden jackals are golden jackals or wolves. A few years ago, there were several studies that suggested that the mitochondrial DNA of certain African golden jackals were actually those of a primitive wolf lineage. There is still some debate as to whether these animals are wolves or jackals, and some of the proposed wolves have been found to hybridize with golden jackals in Senegal.

In utter ignorance of the natural history of wild Canis, domestic dog fanciers have spent the past century to century and half splitting up gene pools under the delusion that this somehow preserves them.  Never mind that for most of their suggested 2 or 3 million years on the planet, wild wolves have continued to exchange genes with their closest relatives. When species hybridize, it was always thought that this would be a negative, but in truth, hybridization can be source of genetic rescue. In the case of Eastern coyotes, crossing with wolves can introduce new genes for more powerful jaws and larger size, which make them better predators of deer. It can also introduce new MHC haplotypes, which can provide the animal with enhanced immunity to disease.

One way of looking at golden jackals and coyotes is they are actually themselves primitive wolves. This might sound a bit heretical, but if you were to go back into time and find the ancestor of all wolves, golden jackals, and coyotes, it would look more less like a golden jackal or coyote.  I would argue that these animals represent a sort of generalized template from which larger, more specialized forms can evolve. One of the problems in sorting out wolf, coyote, and jackal lineages from the fossil record is that at various times through their history on the planet, different lineages have evolved larger wolf-like sizes or have produced coyote or jackal-like forms to fit the niche in question.

A recent comparison of golden jackals, African golden jackals that might be wolves (Canis lupus lupaster or Canis lupaster), black-backed jackals, modern wolves, and the extinct Canis etruscus and Canis arnensis revealed that those the proposed African wolves had skull morphologies that were closer to known golden jackals and black-backed jackals. If these lupaster canids are actually wolves and not jackals, then we would have never been able to guess their identity upon morphology alone.

So while the dog fancy has been splitting hairs and arbitrarily dividing up gene pools, science has revealed that the wild dogs haven’t been doing the same.

Canis is not a closed registry.

Even the boundaries between wolves and golden jackals and between wolves and coyotes are blurry, and of course, this leaves out the rather significant gene flow that has occurred between domestic dogs and wild wolves. Black wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs are the result of dogs and wolves mating “in the wild.”

Science has found all of these wonderful things out, but the dog fancy remains stuck in another era.

Maybe someday it will move beyond the closed registry system and instead of offering up the bromide of “breed preservation,” it will adopt a system of “breed management,” which strives to maintain genetic diversity within a breed and allows regular influxes of outside blood.

That is what nature has allowed with the wild Canis.

That is the actual story of the animals of this genus. It is not one of one lineage remaining pure for millions or even thousands of years.

It is about significant hybridization.

And Canis is not the only genus with this hybridization issue. Ducks in the genus Anas hybridize quite a bit, and it is well-known that many species of whales and dolphins hybridize with their close kin as well. All of these animals are fairly mobile organisms, and their mobility is likely why they retain so much interfertility.  They simply cannot be reproductively isolated from their closest relatives long enough for them to lose chemical interfertility.

It is not something that should be thought of as an evil. Instead, it’s actually a major strength. It is one our own species utilized when we exchanged genes with the Neanderthals and Denisovan people, and if there were another human species alive today, we would likely be able to cross with it.

But because we are so alone in this world, it is difficult for us to understand the concept of a species complex. We are the only humans left.

But dogs and wolves are not the last of their kind.

The gene flow between wild and domestic and among the these three species of Canis is something we have difficulty imagining.

But it is the story of dogkind.

 

 

 

 

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