"The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders." Edward Abbey
|Western Coyote (Canis latrans) Photographed by Jim Zipp in New Mexico|
|Eastern Coyote In Connecticut by Paul Fusco|
|Great Lakes Wolf (Canis lycaon) USFW Photo|
|White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) Prey of the Great Lakes Wolf. Photo by Paul Fusco|
|Moose (Alces alces) One of the primary prey species of the Gray Wolf in eastern North America. Photo by Jim Zipp|
|Bobcat (Lynx rufus) in Connecticut. Photo by Paul Fusco.|
|Coyote in Connecticut. Photo by Jim Zipp|
Recent genetic research is painting a clearer taxonomic picture of the canid species in North America. It is now believed that the Great Lakes Wolf and the Red Wolf may be more closely related genetically to the Coyote than to the Gray Wolf. Where the Gray Wolf and Coyote both existed, there appears to have been no successful hybridization. Hybridization often occurs where closely related species exist in contact with one another and one of the species occurs in small numbers while the other species occurs in larger numbers. An example birders will readily recognize is the decline of the scarce Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) as it hybridizes with the more numerous Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera.) But this interbreeding does not seem to happen with Gray Wolves and Coyotes. The reintroduction of Gray Wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the slow natural repopulation of Gray Wolves in the northern Rockies in Idaho and Montana has not led to hybridization but rather seems to highlight the genetic and phenological differences between the species. The story was different with the contact of the few Coyotes among the Great Lakes Wolves in Ontario. Successful hybridization did occur. One result of this was a larger, more powerful Coyote, the Eastern Coyote. A "Tweed Wolf." This new form of Coyote came with new skills and advantages that were to prove very useful in the anthropogenic landscape of the northeast.
|Wolf and Coyote in Yellowstone National Park. Photo from the blog Ecobirder.|
The Coyote evolved to hunt small mammals in semi-arid and desert habitat. It did not hunt ungulates and it did not enter forests. It's head and the musculature of its jaw were not up to tackling White-tailed Deer. But with the hybridization with Great Lakes Wolf, the Eastern Coyote now is larger, shows sexual dimorphism (males are larger than females), and has proportionally larger and stronger jaws. This new jaw size and strength allows the Eastern Coyote to grasp a White-tailed Deer and hang on while the ungulate fights for its life. New behaviors were exhibited by the hybrid as well, it acted more wolf-like and readily entered the reforested habitat of the northeast. This northern hybrid expansion to the east far out-paced the southern route below the Great lakes, which was being carried out by essentially unaltered Western Coyotes. Eastern Coyotes reached Quebec in 1945, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1958, and Maine in 1970. It continued to expand eastward and then southward eventually wrapping around the Great Lakes and heading back southwestward. This expansion met up with the non-hybrid Western Coyotes moving slowly eastward forming a contact zone in western New York and Pennsylvania. The void had been filled, a large carnivoran had resettled the northeast.
|Eastern Coyote in Guilford, CT. Photo by Bob Gundersen.|
There remains a distinct fear and loathing of Wolves and Coyotes in some people. This is despite the fact that our most loved pet is the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), which is the descendant of domesticated Wolves. When the Eastern Coyote showed up in the northeast, people recognized they were bigger and acted differently than Western Coyotes. They called them "Coydogs," assuming these Coyotes had hybridized with domestic dogs. Genetic research has proven this to be untrue. While dogs and Coyotes can interbreed, the resulting hybrid has behavioral and biological disadvantages that create an evolutionary dead end. These hybrids (shown by genetic research to be extraordinarily rare) do not reproduce successful young in the wild. It was also thought that it might have been phenological plasticity that caused the larger Coyotes. Phenological plasticity is when an organism develops in different ways in different areas based on environmental conditions, such as Blue Jays being larger in the northern part of their range. Now we know it isn't "Coydogs", it isn't phenological plasticity, it is the Wolf within.
|Coyote. Photo by Jim Zipp.|
It is paramount that we strive to understand the natural world. Despite what some would have us believe, our survival depends on a healthy functioning environment. I also believe that our natural world has worth beyond any price. The howling of the Wolf once struck fear in us, and there are many who still would kill all the Wolves and Coyotes. This hatred of Wolves and Coyotes seems in some ways primal, and is certainly in no way rational in today's world. Why do humans see such malevolence in these predators, these progenitors of our dearest companions? Is it that some see in the Wolf all that is deplorable in our own nature? I don't know the answer. But I do know that the howling of Wolves and Coyotes is a most welcomed sound to me personally, and if these voices were no longer to be heard in the wilds of North America, it would be an incalculable loss.
"If the wolf is to survive, the wolf haters must be outnumbered. They must be outshouted, out financed, and out voted." L. David Mech
|Truly the call of the wild. Coyote in Connecticut. Photo by Jim Zipp.|
References used in preparing for this entry include:
"Rapid Adaptive Evolution of Northeastern Coyotes via Hybridization with Wolves" Keys, Curtis, Kitchman. 2009.
"The Cranial Evidence for Hybridization in New England Canis" Lawrence and Bossert. 1969.
"Hybridization Among Three Native North American Canis Species in a Region of Natural Sympatry" Hailer and Leonard. 2008.
"Genetic Nature of Eastern Wolves: Past, Present, and Future" Kyle, Johnson, Patterson, Wilson, Shami, Grewal, and White. 2005.
"Legacy Lost: Genetic Variability and Population Size of Extirpated US Grey Wolves (Canis lupus)" Leonard, Vila, and Wayne. 2004.
"Widespread Occurrence of a Domestic Dog mitochondrial DNA haplotype in Southeastern US Coyotes" Adams, Leonard, and Waits. 2002.