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| Earth on Dec 07, 2011

Lifeform of the week: Coyotes roll with the punches

Coyotes’ extraordinary adaptability has allowed them to thrive on a changing continent.

From our campsite at Texas’ Enchanted Rock State Park, we heard coyotes in the distance. The sounds began shortly after sunset, a rowdy array of high-pitched howls and barks. The chorus continued throughout the night, joined by additional voices as more of these animals emerged, roaming the park and edging closer to our tent. (Or so I’m told. I slept through all but the first act of the cacophonous symphony.) Coyotes, it seems, never shut up. They’re among the most vocal of North American mammals. They’re also one of the most adaptable, capable of living in a variety of environments and willing to eat almost anything. While many large mammals have been driven to near extinction since the arrival of European settlers in the 17th century, coyotes have actually managed to expand their range considerably, and are now top dog throughout much of the continent. Were it not for oceans, they’d probably have made their way to Europe and Asia by now.

Conquering the continent
Coyotes currently occupy most of North and Central America, from Alaska and Canada all the way to Panama. Much of this is due to fairly recent expansion. Before Europeans set up shop on the continent, coyotes resided mostly in the American Southwest and Great Plains regions. A larger canid, the gray wolf (Canis lupus), ruled the north and east of the continent and tended to kill any coyotes that entered lupus turf.* But European settlement did a number on the American landscape. Forests were cleared and wolves were displaced or deliberately killed off (humans were not fond of wolves’ livestock-eating ways). By the dawn of the 20th century, wolf populations had plummeted. With their predators and competitors largely eliminated, coyotes, which do well in sparser prairie-type environments, were able to move into the former wolf territories. Additionally, their ability to live in suburban and even urban environments has allowed coyotes to adapt to greater and greater human environmental tampering.

All-American dog. Image Credit: Alan Vernon.

Hunting and gathering

Coyote enjoying a tasty snack. Image Credit: Alan Vernon.

Coyotes are even less picky about what they eat than where they live. The list of species that fall prey to these creatures is too long to include here. Coyotes will eat pretty much anything that moves and some things that don’t. They like rodents and other small mammals. They’ll also go after some larger critters (particularly the younger ones) such as deer. Birds, eggs, plants, human garbage and even carrion are also not out of the question. The good news for our own species is that coyotes keep rodent populations in check. The bad news is that they’re also prone to attacking small livestock and family pets.

Hunting buddy? Image Credit: Mark Robinson.

Unlike wolves, coyotes are not big on hunting in packs. Although they sometimes live in family groups, they usually hunt alone or in pairs. Despite this ambivalence toward collaboration, coyotes have been observed hunting alongside badgers (Taxidea taxus). Yes, badgers, those short stocky things with that stripe on their faces. If you’re forming a mental image of coyotes and badgers teaming up to corner their prey and high-five-ing each other before sharing a meal, you’ll want to adjust that scenario slightly. The reality is not exactly cooperative pack hunting. The two species just happen to eat some of the same things, and their varied talents (badgers dig, coyotes chase) assure that if one hunter fails, the other has a chance to succeed. Sometimes coyotes catch the prey, sometimes badgers. But it’s less likely to escape entirely with two different predators in pursuit.

Mutts of the wild
In addition to dining and living arrangements, coyotes have a certain degree of flexibility in their mate choice, and have, on occasion, managed to breed with domestic dogs and wolves. While interspecies hybridization is not unheard of in the animal kingdom, it generally results in sterile offspring. But so-called “coy-dog” and “coy-wolf” hybrids are capable of reproducing and can even find mates within a normal coyote breeding population.

Coyote on the run. Image Credit: Larry Lamsa.

You might be wondering how a coyote can mate with a wolf, an animal that, as mentioned earlier, has a tendency to kick its ass. Well, it doesn’t happen all the time. Interspecies mating can occur when one species (wolves in this case) is especially sparse. Even in the realm of animal mating, beggars can’t be choosers, and some lonely wolves have had to lower their standards over the years. DNA testing has shown that eastern coyotes likely bred with wolves during migrations to the new terrain.

Interbreeding among these species has resulted in some physical variations in coyotes.† Coat color varies, as does size. Eastern coyotes tend to be larger than those in the West, perhaps in part due to the influence of wolf genes.

Frequently Asked Questions
Still have some burning questions about coyotes? Perhaps this will help …

What’s with all the yelping?
Coyotes use vocalizations for communication, such as indicating territories. A pair or group may also employ such calls to locate each other after solo forays. But like overly sensitive car alarms, coyotes’ howling instinct can be set off by loud noises that have nothing to do with its intended purpose – police sirens, humans making coyote sounds, etc.

Large ears - the better to hear you with... oh wait, that's wolves. Image Credit: Minette Layne.

How can I tell the difference between a coyote and a wolf?
Visual distinctions between these animals are not always crystal clear, especially with the above-mentioned interbreeding. Coyotes are typically smaller than wolves and have larger ears relative to their body. It also helps to remember that coyotes are abundant in North and Central America but absent elsewhere. When identifying a wild canid, ask yourself, “What continent am I currently on?” If the answer is Europe or Africa, you’re probably not looking at a coyote. (Unless you’re at the zoo. Are you?)

Do coyotes eat roadrunners like cartoons would have us believe?
Well, technically, Looney Toons character Wile E. Coyote never actually eats a roadrunner, he just chases one repeatedly. Considering that coyotes will eat shoe leather if it comes to that, I doubt they turn their noses up at a roadrunner. And the two animals do inhabit some of the same terrain. But birds can be tricky to catch, and since I couldn’t find any reliable documentation of roadrunner consumption by coyotes, it’s still only speculation. If you ask me, it seems more likely that a coyote would eat the domesticated cat that might otherwise have eaten the roadrunner (pet and feral cats account for considerable bird fatalities) than the bird itself.

Is there anything else I should know about coyotes?
Yes, they can swim. And apparently they’re quite good at it.

* The average coyote weighs only 20 to 50 lbs (9 to 23 kg), but a gray wolf can weigh between 40 and 175 lbs (18 to 79 kg). Not exactly a fair fight.

† All this interspecies mating has had an effect on wolves as well. The critically endangered red wolf has DNA so thoroughly interwoven with that of coyotes that some argue whether it should even be considered its own species.

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