A new study by scientists from the New York State Museum shows how local coyotes have evolved to be bigger and stronger over the last 90 years, both expanding their geographic range and becoming the top predator in the Northeast – by interbreeding with wolves.
The study of eastern coyote genetics and skull morphology demonstrates that remnant wolf populations in Canada hybridized with coyotes expanding north of the Great Lakes, and helped turn coyotes from mousers of western grasslands to deer hunters of eastern forests. The resulting coy-wolves are larger, with wider skulls better adapted to killing lager animals like whitetail deer.
Dr. Roland Kays, the state museum’s curator of mammals, and Dr. Jeremy Kirchman, curator of birds, co-authored an article on their research that appears in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters. The other author was Abigail Curtis, who conducted the study an undergraduate at SUNY Albany, and is now a graduate student at UCLA.
According to the study’s authors “the North American coyote evolved as a hunter of small prey in the Great Plains, but rapidly colonized all of eastern North America over the last half-century.” Earlier research had suggested that the spread of agriculture and the extinction of wolves aided coyote expansion, but the question of as to whether remnant wolves and coyotes interbred remained unanswered until now.
A media release form the State Museum notes that “Historical records of the coyote population expansion indicated that movement along the northern route was five times faster than along the route south of the Great Lakes. Populations of pure western coyote and coy-wolf hybrids are presently coming into contact in areas of western New York and Pennsylvania.”
The study was based on DNA from 696 eastern coyotes and the measurements of 196 skulls from State Museum specimens. According to State Museum officials “they also tested three very large animals that looked more like large, full-blooded grey wolves. Two of the animals had the western grey wolf genetic signature and one had a Great Lakes wolf signature, suggesting that a few full-sized wolves have recently migrated into New York and Vermont, but are not breeding here. Only one of the 696 coyote samples was closely related to domestic dogs, showing that coyotes are not frequently breeding with domestic dogs in the region and the popular moniker ‘coydog’ is technically inaccurate.”
The research also indicates that whitetail deer accounted for about a third of the coyote’s diet and they have made extensive use of forested areas.
The State Museum has the longest continuously operating state natural history research and collection survey in the United States, It was begin in 1836 – you can read more about that here.