Residents of the Northeast region of the United States are likely aware of their wild canine neighbors. Even if sightings are relatively uncommon, signs of these stealthy predators are abundant. The Eastern Coyote, also known as the Coywolf, is a cosmopolitan creature, a thoroughly modern species that has evolved only in the last hundred and fifty years. A fertile hybrid descendant of retreating wolves and advancing coyotes, the Coywolf is the fascinating product of animal adaptation supercharged by human activity.
Using data from 437 Eastern Coyotes from 10 American states and the Canadian province of Ontario, researcher Javier Monzón at Stony Brook University in New York found that the average individual is 65 percent coyote, 25 percent wolf, and 10 percent domestic dog. Thanks to their large ancestors, coywolves can be twice the size of purebred Western Coyotes. While wolves and coyotes are suited for the woods and plains respectively, the coywolf is a flexible opportunist well-suited for finding food in urban and suburban settings. Interbreeding with dogs may have increased the coywolf’s tolerance of people and widened its diet beyond game meat. Armed with its refined traits, coywolves have established significant populations in Boston, New York, and other large cities along the East Coast.
The animal’s wolf ancestry imprinted an important genetic message to the coywolves: don’t let the humans catch you. The wolves that were able to survive long enough to interbreed with coyotes were the ones that were best able to avoid the human threat. Whether the coywolf constitutes a new species is open to debate. Jonathan Way at the National Parks Service in Massachusetts argues that morphological and genetic distinction between coyotes, wolves and coywolves can be quantified to support this idea. Others argue that since coywolves may continue to breed with wolves, coyotes and dogs, they do not meet the definition of species as an animal that does not breed with outsiders. However, this raises the question of whether coyotes, dogs, and wolves are to be considered separate species, since they have interbred to produce fertile offspring. Regardless of its classification, the coywolf serves as a reminder of the unpredictable course of nature and roams the streets as a groundbreaking organism in modern urban ecology.
Via The Economist
Images via Flickr