Huge Pa. coyotes have us pondering wolves

Coyotes of about 50 pounds are not unheard of in Pennsylvania,
but to hear that three were just taken in the recent Mosquito Creek
Coyote Hunt is an eye-opener.

In case you missed it, it was established by a study conducted a
few years ago in Massachusetts and Ontario that Eastern coyotes are
a hybrid resulting from wolves breeding with Western coyotes.

A genetic study of tissue samples from 75 coyotes captured in
Massachusetts and Ontario showed that all contained varying amounts
of genes of a wolf species found in southeastern Canada, commonly
called the Eastern wolf, and the genes of the western coyote, a
noticeably smaller animal than the Eastern coyote.

Eastern coyotes are genetically distinct, researchers concluded.
They are not Western coyotes nor Eastern wolves; they are a hybrid
of the two and should be classified as a new species.

Results from the Massachusetts study showed that, on average, 10
percent to 15 percent of the genetic makeup of Eastern coyotes is
Eastern wolf. Significantly, however, some of the coyotes examined
were almost pure Eastern wolf.

While no similar research has been done on Pennsylvania coyotes,
the findings in the Massachusetts study were consistent with
genetic probes carried out on Eastern coyotes in New York State and
Maine a few years before. So it seems safe to assume that Keystone
State coyotes also carry similar wolf genes.

When you see 50-pounders like those killed in the Mosquito Creek
hunt, it is easy to believe. Interestingly, Eastern wolves – which
range the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence regions of Quebec and
Ontario – are smaller than timber wolves. Adult males weigh between
55 and 80 pounds and females weigh between 40 and 66 pounds.

The big concern of Pennsylvania sportsmen, of course, is that
coyotes kill many deer. The fear appears to be valid, because there
is evidence that coyotes in New York’s Adirondacks region hunt deer
in packs – typical wolf behavior – although that has never been
documented here. 

But how could wolves and coyotes have interbred when wolves are
known to kill coyotes that stray into their territory? Because of
this wolf intolerance of their smaller relative, it is believed
that coyotes have never been numerous where there are wolves.

But scientists suggest that human interference is to blame for
creating the circumstances that allowed breeding between these two
competitive species to take place.

They point out that wolves are very sociable and live in packs.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, wolves were slaughtered
across the United States with the goal of exterminating them. As
the wolves declined, scientists say, coyotes moved into their
territory and encountered lone wolves from decimated packs.

Their mates gone, male wolves mated with the only breeding
animals they could find – female coyotes. DNA testing has confirmed
the theory. Female wolves would probably not have tolerated the
advances of the smaller male coyotes.

This hybridization ended when wolves were given full protection
by the Endangered Species Act in the northern United States and in
the parks of Canada. Scientists say wolf packs reformed and
hybridization with the coyote stopped decades ago.

But the result is that a highly adaptable predator reigns in
Penns Woods and the rest of the Northeast. Part wolf, part coyote –
they may be changing. I wonder, as they get bigger, are they
evolving into wolves? And with the ecological niche the wolves
occupied here now vacant, is that entirely a bad thing?

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *