(WILDLIFE) The coyote ignites the imagination of one culture after another. Seen as a trickster by some, ‘God’s Dog,’ by others, and Wile E. Coyote by scores of children, read how this mysterious creature keeps many secrets close to what Mark Twain called its ‘long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton.’ – Global Animal
New York Times, By CAROL KAESUK YOON
With a chorus of howls and yips wild enough to fill a vast night sky, the coyote has ignited the imagination of one culture after another. In many American Indian mythologies, it is celebrated as the Trickster, a figure by turns godlike, idiotic and astoundingly sexually perverse. In the Navajo tradition the coyote is revered as God’s dog. When European colonists encountered the species, they were of two minds, heralding it as an icon of the expansive West and vilifying it as the ultimate varmint, the bloodthirsty bane of sheep and cattle ranchers.
Mark Twain was so struck when he first saw that “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it” that he called it “a living, breathing allegory of Want.” And Twain’s description itself was so vivid, it inspired the animator Chuck Jones to create that perennial failure known to cartoon-loving children everywhere, Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner-hating fame.
Yet as familiar as the coyote seems, these animals remain remarkably poorly understood. They have remained elusive despite fantastic ecological success that has been described as “a story of unparalleled range expansion,” as they have moved over the last century from the constrictions of their prairie haunts to colonize every habitat from wild to urban, from coast to coast. And they have retained their mystery even as interest has intensified with increasing coyote-human interactions — including incidents of coyotes dragging off small dogs and cats, and even (extremely rarely) attacks on people, from Los Angeles to the northern suburbs of New York City, where four children were attacked in separate incidents this summer.
Coyotes have managed to elude much serious scrutiny by being exquisitely wary, so much so that even dedicated coyote scientists can struggle to find ways to lay eyes on them, not to mention hands.
Dr. Laura Prugh, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said trying to survey a population of coyotes in Alaska was “like working with a ghost species.” To even have a chance of catching a coyote, she said, traps must be boiled to wash away human scent, handled with gloves and then hidden extremely carefully with all traces of human footprints brushed away. Even then, the trap is likely to catch only the youngest and most inexperienced of animals.
Coyotes have remained so much in possession of their own secrets that it was not until this year that the real identity of the coyotes living in the eastern part of the country was revealed. Two separate teams of researchers studying the genes of coyotes in the Northeast reported evidence that these animals that have for decades upon decades been thought of as coyotes are in fact coyote-wolf hybrids.
The team headed by Roland W. Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, studied coyotes from New Jersey to Maine. Jonathan Way, wildlife biologist with the Eastern Coyote Research consulting firm, and colleagues examined coyotes around Cape Cod and Boston. Both teams found that the animals carry wolf and coyote DNA. The paper by Dr. Kays and his colleagues was published in Biology Letters; the paper by Dr. Way and his colleagues was published in Northeastern Naturalist.
Based on the wolf DNA found in the Eastern coyotes, Dr. Kays and colleagues hypothesize in their paper that Western coyotes dispersing eastward north of the Great Lakes across Canada during the last century mated with wolves along the way, bringing that wolf DNA along with them to the Northeast.
The findings may explain why coyotes in the East are generally larger than their Western counterparts — that is, more wolflike in size — and why they are so much more varied in coat color, as might be expected from a creature with a more diverse genome. It may also explain why Eastern coyotes appear to be more adept as deer hunters than their Western forebears, which tend toward smaller prey, like voles and rabbits.
What the finding does not settle is how to define exactly what these animals are, or for that matter, what to call them. Dr. Way favors the term “coywolf” to denote the animals’ hybrid heritage. He said because these animals are part wolf — species that enjoy protected status — they deserve some benefits not available to coyotes, which are typically freely hunted.
Dr. Kays, however, says that he is not a fan of the name, in part because the animals are “mostly coyote and a little bit of wolf,” but also because the Eastern coyote may be less a finished product deserving of a name and more an evolutionary work in progress. There are even hints that the traveling coyotes may have been up to more than just dawdling with a wolf or two. Dr. Kays’s team also found one coyote carrying something similar to domestic dog DNA, suggesting that the question of what exactly an Eastern coyote is may become even more complicated as scientists learn more.
One major complication is that all the species in the genus Canis, to which the coyote belongs, can successfully interbreed. In other words, coyotes (or Canis latrans, meaning “barking dog”) and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and every kind of wolf, from the red wolf to the Eastern wolf to the gray wolf (Canis lupus), can mate and produce perfectly healthy pups. No wonder, then, that interactions among these species have led to a genetic mess that researchers sometimes refer to as “Canis soupus.”
That coyotes will consider a wide variety of species as mates may be a reflection of their adaptability, also evident in their catholic tastes in food. Stephen DeStefano, a wildlife biologist with the United States Geological Survey’s Massachusetts Cooperative Research Unit and author of “Coyote at the Kitchen Door” (Harvard UniversityPress, 2010), explains that coyotes will feast on things as diverse as beetles, bird eggs, garbage, pocket gophers, raspberries, pigs, wild plums, porcupines, apples, flying squirrels and watermelons.
But while such broad tastes have mostly made villains of coyotes as they happily expand their diet to take in the family pet when they can get it, they have also, at least once, made them the hero. Dr. Stanley D. Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at Ohio State University who has studied coyotes in the Chicago area for the past decade, found that coyotes have a taste for Canada goose eggs. Rather than just dining at a single nest, the coyotes will plunder multiple nests in a night, gathering what eggs they can’t eat and burying them for later. The result has put a significant dent in what had been fast increasing numbers of geese, considerably noisier and messier urban creatures than the coyote.
Flexibility is also a hallmark of coyotes’ hunting. Not only do coyotes hunt singly and in packs, they have even been observed hunting cooperatively with other species. In Wyoming, scientists have seen coyotes hunting with badgers, large burrowing creatures that enjoy a nice bit of ground squirrel. As badgers dig toward squirrels in their tunnels, coyotes wait above for the squirrels to pop up for a quick escape, or perhaps to be chased back down to be eaten by a badger. Teams may work together often for an hour or more, the coyote mock-chasing or otherwise playfully inviting the lethargic badger to activity when it pauses, and to good purpose. Coyotes hunting with badgers had to work less and ate more than solitary coyotes in the same area. These teams were so effective that researchers reported often seeing the same pairs working together again and again.
Despite such charming intelligence, the coyote has found itself almost universally despised, feared and hunted. Ranchers hate coyotes for killing millions of dollars in livestock each year. These thefts have been answered with many millions of tax dollars spent over the years on programs to kill coyotes through the deployment of cyanide, strychnine, baited sheep collars and guns of many kinds. It is a war that has been as unrelenting and intense as, some researchers say, it is useless.
“Killing coyotes is kind of like mowing the lawn,” said Dr. Prugh. “It stimulates vigorous new growth.”
Even in their new habitat of the great metropolises, with nary a sheep in sight, the coyote finds itself, at best, a nervously tolerated visitor. In recent years, urbanites have been simultaneously charmed and disturbed by coyotes strolling in Central Park, trotting into a Quiznos restaurant in downtown Chicago and taking a dash around a federal courthouse in Detroit. Such news is, more often than not, soon followed by the news that the coyote has been rounded up and removed. It doesn’t seem to matter that coyotes are relatively harmless, as researchers point out, as any person or pet is much more likely to be injured or even killed by a domestic dog.
Neither does it seem to matter that the removal of a single showy coyote is unlikely to leave a city clear of these animals, or even give any sense of just how many coyotes a given city harbors. Dr. Gehrt said that when he began his research he would have guessed there were some 50 to 100 coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area. After a decade of radio tracking and genetic analyses, he knows better. Dr. Gehrt said he conservatively estimates the number of these rarely seen creatures at more than 2,000.
The coyote is out there, and it is here to stay. For most people (as long as they are not very unlucky and they and their neighbors refrain from feeding coyotes — the No. 1 reason coyotes end up hurting someone), the coyote offers a bit of wildness to anyone willing to listen to the gift it has shared for millenniums — its unforgettable voice.
The moniker “barking dog” just doesn’t cut it. The coyote has a bountiful lexicon that includes growls, huffs, woofs, whines, yelps, howls, “wow-oo-wow” sounds and more. Each serves its purpose in the coyote business of giving greetings or disseminating alarms.
But perhaps the sound that listeners know best, the one that makes us stop what we’re doing and look up into the night sky, is that mad cacophony of mournful howls and maniacal yips. That, scientists say, is the coyote’s territorial declaration, an effort to make a few coyotes sound like 10 or 100, to insist on their unassailable presence.
Dr. DeStefano writes in his book of the legends that coyotes are talking to us, that they can tell us things like where to find water, whether danger is approaching and whether today is the day that death will come, that the coyote has learned Comanche, Apache and many other languages, but not English.
But even we English speakers know what the coyote is telling us when we hear those calls, shrill and fierce as they bounce along canyons of rock or concrete or just down the cul-de-sac. The coyote is saying to everyone, fellow barking dogs or otherwise, “We are here.”