After last ice age, coyotes shrank but wolves did not

Once large and wolf-like, coyotes ultimately became much smaller.

Coyotes and gray wolves were once more similar in size. But when the last ice age ended more than 10,000 years ago, and many large species of mammals went extinct, coyotes changed from large, pack-hunting dogs to the smaller canines we know today. That’s according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February 2012.

A young modern coyote looking at a fossil coyote skull in a southern California tar pit. Image Credit: Doyle V. Trankina

Changes in body size occurred for coyotes because large prey and their large competitors were disappearing, the researchers say.

Today’s gray wolf is five to six feet from nose-to-tail. Modern-day coyotes measure three to four feet. Gray wolves usually weigh 80 to 120 pounds. Coyotes, in comparison, weigh a mere 30 to 40 pounds.

The researchers, Julie Meachen of the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and Josh Samuels of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, began searching for the answer for these changes in appearance by looking at an ecogeographic principle called Bergmann’s rule, which states that as climate gets colder, or as one moves farther away from the equator, animals get bigger.

Surprisingly, however, coyotes don’t show a correlation between climate and body size. The researchers then took another approach. They hypothesized that perhaps species interactions, or lack thereof, caused the shift.

Gray wolf of modern times; compared with the coyote, it’s kept its size across the millennia. Image Credit: U.S. National Park Service

To find out if this could be the case, the scientists examined body size in living coyotes across different climates from North Dakota to southern California.

They also measured the skeletons of wolves (Canis lupus) and coyotes (Canis latrans) from Pleistocene-aged tar deposits, as well as of early, mid-, and recent Holocene (end of the Pleistocene to the present) populations of both.

They found few differences between Pleistocene and Holocene wolf populations.

Coyotes in the Pleistocene (Canis latrans orcutti) were distinct from existing coyotes, however. The skulls and jaws of C. l. orcutti were significantly thicker and deeper than those of recent populations.

Fossil coyote, a composite skeleton at the UC-Museum of Paleontology. Image Credit: F. Robin O’Keefe

Pleistocene coyotes also had wider teeth for processing meat–an adaptation for killing larger prey and dealing with higher stresses during food acquisition and processing.

These characteristics suggest that C. l. orcutti was more carnivorous than modern coyotes. Saran Twombly is program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, which supported the research. Twombly said:

Coyote on-the-hunt: for smaller prey than its kin of past ages once stalked. Image Credit: U.S. National Park Service

In a time of increasing loss of biodiversity, understanding the degree to which species interactions drive evolutionary change is important.

This study provides evidence that interactions among carnivores and their prey are the probable cause of evolutionary change in coyotes.

Wolves are large-prey specialists that hunt in packs by means of a long, enduring chase. In contrast, coyotes are usually solitary predators of small mammals, such as rodents and rabbits.

Yet coyotes can be opportunistic hunters with changing prey-killing behaviors because of their intermediate size and adaptability. Some of these behaviors would bring them into direct competition for food with wolves. Meachen said:

These species interactions are likely what caused the shift in coyote morphology we see in the fossil record–and into today.

A coyote of today, smaller than its ancestors, roams the wintry wilderness. Image Credit: u.S. National Park Service

The results are interesting for two reasons, says Meachen.

In a relatively short time span, there’s been a significant change in the body size and shape of a large mammal species.

The findings also offer a snapshot of species interactions in extinct animal communities, Meachen said.

Although we can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the change in coyotes, we can show that it is not being directly caused by climate. The most likely explanation is interactions among species.

Bottom line: A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February 2012 suggests that coyotes, once similar in size to gray wolves, decreased in size when the last ice age ended more than 10,000 years ago.

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