Posts Tagged ‘Eastern coyote’
I can (in theory) get everything on this trail camera:
I actually haven’t been placing mine on actual game trails but on access roads, and that may have limited all the animal activity I’ve been able to capture.
Within Canis, there are lots of bogus species proposed. A few years back, a team of researchers in Australia made some skull measurements of dingoes and decided that we should declare the dingo a new species distinct from the domestic dog and wolf. Never mind that every single genetic study on dingoes clearly puts them within the East Asian dog clade. A dingo is a feral dog very closely related to things like chow chows and akita inu.
Comparative morphology once declared the Japanese chin a distinct species, complete with their own genus, Dysodes. Never that such a thing wouldn’t pass the smell test now, it is still being tried on dingoes.
Within the genus Canis, there has always been a desire for some to split up species. Morphological variation is really great in the more wide-ranging species, but thus far, every proposed new species has come out lacking. Molecular techniques have discovered one species in this genus, the golden wolf of Africa, and there might be a distinct species of wolf in the Himalayas.
But all the rest have come up short. A recent study of wolf and dog genomes revealed that if you make dogs and dingoes a species, the entire species of Canis lupus becomes paraphyletic. So unless we want to abandon cladistics as our classification model, we pretty much have to keep dogs and dingoes within the wolf species. The red and Eastern wolves have also come up short in these studies,
But that’s not where some people want to go. In fact, as of March this year, there was a paper that came out calling for classifying the Eastern coyote as Canis oriens.
I think this is quite unwise. For one thing, this ecomorph of coyote, which does have both wolf and domestic dog ancestry, is pretty new. Further, there is no evidence that this population is fully reproductively isolated from dogs, wolves, or the original Western coyote population. There might not be a lot of crossbreeding with domestic dogs.
But Western coyotes that are free of dog or wolf blood can still come into the East.There are no massive barriers that stop these coyotes mating with coyotes that might have wolf or dog in them.
Roland Kays, who was part of one of the original genome-wide studies of North American wolves, recently wrote a piece arguing against calling the Eastern coyote “a coywolf” or a distinct species. In the piece, Kays argues that this population of coyotes is not reproductively isolated, so it really is premature to call them a species now.
I would argue that the Eastern coyote is actually an ecomorph that is evolving to live in the human-dominated world that was once woodlands of Eastern North America, and an ecomorph is not a species. It could become one, but it takes quite a bit of time and isolation in order to do so.
In fact, I think the big take away from all the most recent study is that coyotes are a small type of wolf.
And that means that all this splitting we’ve done in Canis isn’t really all that helpful in understanding their exact biology and natural history.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t species of wild dog to be discovered. The case to split red foxes into two species is quite strong, and there is also a strong possibility that the gray foxes of the West and of the East are distinct species. The new species of wild dog will be found in creatures in like these, not in the larger dog species.
But Canis is where the charismatic dogs are. Wolves and their kin capture our imaginations. They are the closest relatives of the domestic dogs, and the domestic dog is descended from the Old World wolf. Within domestic dogs, we’ve been splitting them up into different varieties for thousands of years, and in the last two hundred, we’ve been doing so almost insanely. This has had to have had some effect, perhaps subconsciously, on how we view their closest relatives.
At one time, people used to go nuts naming things. Clinton Hart Merriam named dozens of species of bear in North America, which we now all recognize as belonging to one species. There is a herpetologist in Australia who does much the same thing with snakes and lizards in that country.
We live in a time when most of the larger fauna have become known to science. Pretty much the only way new species can be discovered is through trying to race molecular evolution. We don’t live in those times of gentlemen naturalists taking ships up the Congo River in search of new species of leopard.
We’ve just cataloged so much nature since that time. We don’t know it all, but we know a lot more than we did in 1880 or 1920.
And while I’d argue that the term “species” has to have a subjective element to it, it can’t be so subjective that it become squishy and useless.
And that’s unfortunately what we’re getting with things like Canis dingo and Canis oriens.
They really aren’t that much better than Dysodes pravus.
The other evening, I was at an sporting goods store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the checkout line, the attendant noticed that I was purchasing some coyote attractant and began to bash them.
“Somebody set ’em out.”
This is not dissimilar to the reaction I would get in virtually any place in West Virginia.
Coyotes are reviled virtually anywhere they are found. If they aren’t being blamed for killing calves and sheep, then they are being blamed for killing all the fawns or trophy bucks or are implicated in disappearances of beloved outdoor cats.
Coyotes were once found only the prairies and mountains of the West. Their old name was “prairie wolf,” but now it is often called the “brush wolf.” In my part of the world, you pretty much see coyotes when they burst out of some thicket or dive down a logging road into roughest, brushiest terrain they can find.
This is an animal that fears our kind. We have long since killed off any that were less than paranoid about people.Their lives are harrowing. Death stalks at every corner.
But the thing which brings the death is also the thing that allows them to thrive. That thing is us. Modern man has made the world so much nicer for coyotes. We’ve killed off the larger wolves and most of the cougars, and we’ve allowed white-tailed deer to overpopulate our forests. We leave out garbage and pet food for them. We let feral and outdoor cats wander about, and they are pretty easy prey for a coyote.
That brings us to the human element of the story. South Carolina natural and author John Lane spent a year traveling the South in search of the real coyote story. The Southeastern states were among the first settled by Europeans, and they were among the first to wipe out wolves.
Now, this part of the country has to deal with a new predator, one that is far more resolute and durable than the wolves that existed at the time of colonization and settlement.
And for a part of the country that has long been settled into a kind of subtropical England, this animal represents a sort of invasion, like a noxious weed in a rose garden.
Lane travels across the region, interviewing a coyote trapper in Alabama and wandering as far s the Allegheny foothills of West Virginia to track down the taxidermy of a legendary sheep-killing coyote. He listens to the sounds of the foxhounds turned into coyote dogs that now bay hard after the new quarry.
He compiles his findings into a fine piece of nature writing called Coyote Settles the South. The title alone is worth consideration. Americans think of ourselves as the descendants of a settler state. But in our settling, we have unsettled much. In the region Lane explores, the woods no longer hold vast flocks of passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets (which were actually conures). The cougar is gone, but I think that virtually everyone knows someone who has claimed to see one. Whatever wolf lived in the East or the South is long since gone, and virtually all of the indigenous people who lived in these forests have been driven off or put on reservations or intermarried into the populations of settlers and slave that inundated the land with their quests for gold, timber, indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton.
Just as Western civilization’s settling was actually a great unsettling, the coyote’s arrival has been an unsettling. Although Lane is a defender of the coyote, he is conflicted with the coyote depredations on loggerhead sea turtle nests on South Carolina barrier islands:
I’d spent most of my life with my environmentalist sympathies building constantly for sea turtles. After all, they’ve been in the big-budget ad campaigns that come with being cute in a reptilian sort of way. Protecting their nests had become a vacation activity on southern barrier islands. There were even children’s books about them nesting. All that was good, and it has helped raise the awareness of the plight of this ancient and powerful creature, but it had not stopped the carnage. Was it really the coyotes that were keeping the sea turtles on the worldwide list of most concern? Isn’t it really industrial fishing and coastal real estate agents who should be taking the blame and leading the charge to stop the killing? If we regulated these industries as they should be, would there be plenty of protein to go around?
I was glad that everyone was doing everything possible to give turtles a fighting chance, including “knocking back” the coyotes that had learned how to purchase a quick raw omelet on the beachfront. What I didn’t want, though, was for folks to lose sight of the beauty of the mating predators dancing on the beach. I wanted folks to stop hating the coyotes, and instead to see them as part and parcel now of this new scene (pg. 103).
There is a tendency to think of coyotes as an “invasive species.” I spent many happy weeks in the heat of summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been fascinated by loggerhead sea turtles. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores was my favorite spot to visit on a beach holiday, and my grandparents allegedly took me there several times a day during these vacations. That aquarium was heavily concerned with educating the public about loggerheads, which nest on the same beaches where we sunbathed and swam. I was fascinated that the newly hatched turtles knew their way to the sea, and then the females who survive the gauntlet of predators on the beach and in the depths of the sea return to those same beaches to lay their eggs.
Such a primitive animal, yet so excellent at survival.
And to see its numbers reduced, no matter how trivially in the grand scheme of things, appears at once to be an affront to all that is decent. If this were hogs or feral cats or red foxes doing the deed, there wouldn’t be such a conflict. They simply don’t belong here, and there is no good reason for them to be there.
Lane thinks the red wolf’s historic presence on the islands might give the coyotes some license to eat turtle eggs. I think it goes beyond the red wolf. Turtles have been nesting on these islands for millions of years. If they were using not those very islands, then they were using the ones that were there before. Canids first evolved in North America some 40 million years ago, so it’s very likely that there was some kind of dog eating those sea turtle eggs long before our kind began to walk upright. As wolves evolved, there were always jackal-like and wolf-like forms in both Eurasia and North America. Paleontology has suggested that we can somehow trace the evolution of what have become wolves and coyote through examining those fossils of those canids. Genetic studies strongly suggest that we be careful of such analyses. The story of canids shows that there were many “coyotes” and “wolves” roaming this continent, even if their genetic legacy likely doesn’t exist in any extant species.
In this way, a coyote has more right to eat the eggs of loggerhead in South Carolina than an introduced red fox has a right to eat the eggs of flatbacks in Queensland.
But the line we draw in this regard as some subjectivity. After all, I’m upset at what feral cats do to songbirds, but I know that the bigger problem is what we’re doing to Neotropical forests. If these forests are felled, many of these birds have no place to go in the winter.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore that the cats are taking the birds. It just means that it’s one of the problems that so many songbirds have to face, and the socially responsible thing to do is keep cats inside.
The truth about coyotes is that even their admirers have concerns. Lane wonders if an enterprising coyote might decide to take out his beloved beagle, Murphy, a creature bred to be so docile that he wouldn’t even stand a chance.
Whether coyotes have a place in the South or not is pretty much immaterial. Their populations are so resilient that once they arrive, they pretty much can’t be removed.
Lane wonders whether coyotes would have come into the South if it hadn’t been for the controversial practice of fox-penning. With the rise of the modern highway system and the growth of the white-tailed deer population that might lead a hunting pack into oncoming cars, many blue collar foxhunting clubs have fenced off vast acreages and stocked them with red and gray foxes that can be purchased from trappers or, at one time, ordered from out-of-state companies. Sometimes, the companies would send an order of red foxes with a coyote thrown in for free.
Perhaps that is how the coyote spread through the South so quickly. In West Virginia, I pretty much have my doubts. West Virginia has a climate and forest landscape like the Northeast, and Northeastern coyotes are bigger and more wolf-like. The ones I’ve seen have had broader heads and relatively stout bodies than the coyotes I’ve seen in Arizona. Ours likely came from that great Northeastern swarm that came into Ontario, bred with with wolves, and then wandered into New York State and down the Alleghenies. The High Alleghenies towards the Pennsylvania line were the first place where coyotes became established, and just as black bears did as the forested lands spread out into the abandoned farmland to the west, coyotes did the same. I’m sure that a few coyotes came from fox pens, but I don’t think they are the main reason they came into West Virginia.
South Carolina and the Deep South might be a different story. This isn’t an easy place to be a dog. The parasite load is far, far more extreme that you’d get in the nothern or western parts of the continent. One reason why it so many descriptions of Southern wolves mention their black color is that melanism is associated with a stronger immune response, and being black in color could be a side effect of selection for stronger immune response in the wormy, wormy South. Red foxes were known in Virginia from the Pleistocene. They were unknown south of New England and New York State at the time of colonization. They only became widespread in the Deep South during the twentieth century, and a lot of their spread actually could be attributed to human introduction. So it is possible that coyotes came because of the fox pens.
But it is possible they came on their own.
The epilogue of Lane’s book is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. At Wofford College, where Lane is a professor, a “shack ” was built as a sort of allusion to the one Aldo Leopold built in Wisconsin. It was meant for use for the college’s environmental studies program, and it needed “study skins.”
Lane managed get a coyote pelt. Some rednecks had caught a little coyote and tried to sell it on Craigsist, and the conservation officer tracked down the illegally-owned coyote from the ad. Because South Carolina law doesn’t allow coyotes to be relocated or released, the officer shot the poor coyote and donated the specimen to the college.
The coyote’s pelt is sent to a tannery in Greenville, where a man who is called “the Russian” runs the show. Russians are people of the frontier like Southerners, and they are also people who known some of the worst horrors of humanity. Both people have lived off the land and trapped and hunted. Both know about furs.
But the South is now the New South. With advent of air conditioning and the death of Jim Crow and malaria, it has been appealing part of the country to move to. No more hard winters like in Buffalo or Cleveland. It’s become a domesticated part of America. It’s no longer the Cotton Frontier. It’s the land of air conditioning and finely manicured lawns.
The coyote’s arrival in the region belies the simple fact that the land never can be fully domesticated. Black bear numbers are on the upswing, and Lane quickly notices from reading the literature on vagrant cougars that are working their way east that they are essentially using the same migration route that coyotes used to enter this part of the continent. They are moving across the Northern Plains into the Great Lakes, and it won’t be long before they enter Upstate New York and work their way into the Appalachians.
The domesticated land of the South may soon become a land of predators.
The general population–obese, unaware, untrained in natural history, much less yard maintenance- won’t notice the chance until it’s too late and they’re trapped indoors thumbing their remote controls and adjusting their air conditioning. The coyotes and bears and cougars won’t be using remote controls. They’ll be settled in, operating on instincts and native intelligence, paws on the ground, checking out what opportunities the new neighborhood offers. Cowered in their midcentury modern dens in aging suburbs backing up to greenways, undeveloped parkland, remnant agricultural land, and railroad right-of-ways, the denatured Homo sapiens will fear (and rightly so) for their poodles, their bird feeder, and maybe even their children rare instance the young wander out of the monitor’s shadow. In my vision, most southerners will be prisoners to the wild (pg. 169).
When Lane swings by Greenville to pick up the coyote pelt and the other study skins for the shack, he marvels at the red fox and beaver pelts, but he is still impressed with the coyote. He thinks it is a good skin, but when he goes to pay the Russian, he finds that the order cost $20 less than had initially been budgeted.
“No problem,” says the Russian. “I throw in coyote free.”
That’s what has happened to the New South. The land has been domesticated at a great ecological cost and social cost, but the coyote, well, it came along for free.
And it’s here to stay.
And its howls may be a harbinger of what’s to come.
I’m currently reading John Lane’s excellent book, Coyote Settles the South. It is an excellent book, and I will be reviewing it here very soon. The whole time I’ve been reading it I thinking about my encounter with the male Eastern coyote I called in back in March.
He’s not exactly the same coyote that Lane is writing about. He’s a coyote of the gray woods, not the subtropical pine forests and river bottoms.
But in some ways, he is the same. He is the same creature that has adjusted to all that Western man can throw at him and thrived.
And he’s thrived at the expense of the wolves that once roamed over the Northeastern US and the South. He’s just the right size to live on a diet of rodents and rabbits but also has the ability to pack up and hunt deer. He can be an omnivore, enjoying wild apples and pears that fall to the ground, almost as much as he would if he came across a winter-killed deer.
The coyote is a survivor. I’ve written on this space several times that the reason he has thrived is because he has been here far longer than the wolves that once harried his kind. Until last week, it was assumed that the coyote split from the wolf some 1 million years ago. This million year split has been used for virtually every study that has examined the relationships between different populations or species in the genus Canis. It is used to set the molecular clock so that we can figure out when wolves and dogs split and perhaps give us some idea as to when dogs may have been domesticated.
This assumption has been directly challenged in a new study that was released in Science Advances last week. The paper examined full genome sequences of several different canids, and it can be argued that it pretty much ended the debate as to whether the red wolf and Eastern wolf are species. They aren’t. Instead, they are the result of hybridization between wolves and coyotes. Most of the media attention has paid attention to this discovery in the study.
It’s the most important practical implications, because the US Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray or Holarctic wolf in most of the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern states in favor of protecting the Eastern and red wolves. Red wolves are called Canis rufus, and Eastern wolf is Canis lycaon. With them being recognized as hybrids, this greatly complicates the issue of how to conserve them under the Endangered Species Act, which, as its name suggests, is meant to conserve actual species and not hybrids between species.
The authors of the study feel that these hybrid populations are still worth conserving, largely because the red wolf contains the last reservoir of genes belonging to the now extinct wolves of the Southeast.
But in order to make this work, we’re probably going to have to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, and that is not going to happen any time soon.
However, the finding in the study that is worth discussing more is that not only showed that red and Eastern wolves were not some relict ancient species of wolf. It is the finding that coyotes and wolves split only 50,000 years ago.
Using a simple isolation model and a summary likelihood approach, we estimated a Eurasian gray wolf–coyote divergence time of T = 0.38 N generations (95% confidence interval, 0.376 to 0.386 N), where N is the effective population size. If we assume a generation time of 3 years, and an effective population size of 45,000 (24, 25), then this corresponds to a divergence time of 50.8 to 52.1 thousand years ago (ka), roughly the same as previous estimates of the divergence time of extant gray wolves.
This finding means that the studies that use that 1 million year divergence time to set the molecular clock for all those dog domestication studies need to be reworked. This is going to have some effect on how we think about dog domestication, and although the domestication dates have been moved back in recent years, the actual split between dogs and wolves is likely to be much later than when we see the first signs of domestication in subfossil canids.
That’s one important finding that comes from this discovery that wolves and coyotes are much more closely related.
The other is that yes, it did pretty much end Canis rufus and Canis lycaon as actual species, but it probably also ends the validity of Canis latrans as a valid species. Coyotes could be classified as a subspecies of wolf. Indeed, they are much more closely related to wolves than Old World red foxes are to New World red foxes, which split 4oo,ooo years ago. And there is still some debate as to whether these two foxes are distinct species, because we’ve traditionally classified them as a single species. Plus, if we start splitting them into two species, we’re likely to find the same thing exists with least weasels living in the Old and New World. And the same thing with stoats.
And then it’s not long we’re fighting over the house mouse species complex.
But if we’re going to lump red foxes, it’s pretty hard not to lump coyotes and wolves. It is true that wolves normally kill coyotes in their territory, but it also found that wolves in Alsaska and Yellowstone, wolves that were thought to be entirely free of any New World ancestry, also had some coyote genes.
So the coyote, like the extinct Honshu wolf and the current Arabian wolf, could be correctly thought of a small subspecies of wolf. We know from paleontology that in both North America and Eurasia there were various forms of canid that varied from jackal-like to wolf-like, and although we know the jackal-like form is the earliest form, these two types have ebbed and flowed across Eurasia and North America. We’ve assumed that the jackal-like forms gave became the coyote and the larger wolf-like forms have become the gray, red, and dire wolves.
But what we’re looking at now is the coyote isn’t the ancient species we thought it was. It’s very likely that some ancestral wolf population came into North America, and instead assuming the pack-hunting behavior of Eurasian wolves, it tended toward the behavior of a golden jackal. When this ancient wolf walked into North America, it would have found that the pack-hunting niche was already occupied by dire wolves. There were many other large predators around as well, and evolving to the jackal-like niche would have made a lot more sense in evolutionary terms.
This is what the coyote is.
The pack-hunting modern wolf came into the continent and took it by storm, and the coyote exchanged genes with it. They lived together as sort of species-like populations in the West, but when wolves became rare from persecution following European settlement, the coyote and wolf began to exchange genes much more.
So with one study using complete genomes, the entire taxonomy of North American Canis is truly blown asunder.
And the implications for dog domestication studies and for the practical application of the Endangered Species Act could not be any more consequential.
Very rarely do you get studies like this one.
It changes so much, and the question about what a coyote is has become unusually unsettling but also oddly amazing.
I will never think of a coyote the same way.
The mystery is even more mysterious.
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.
So calm and relaxed that he stops to scratch an itch!
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.