Eastern Coyotes are becoming Coywolves
(Note: This statement: "...strangely, because there are so few ancient wolf specimens still around in museums, DNA research to determine what kind of wolves they were cannot be done..." seems odd in light of other "ancient" beings whose DNA is apparently still 'testable.' Perhaps the results would not be in line with the agenda...)
July 2, 2005
By David Zimmerman, News Correspondent
P.O. Box 8
St. Johnsbury, Vermont 05819
800-523-6397 (toll-free in New Hampshire and Vermont) or 802-748-8121
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A handsome, stuffed, wild canine presides over the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife's conference room on Portland Street in St. Johnsbury.
Shot in Glover in 1998 by Eric Potter, the animal, a male, is a puzzler. With its gray, tan, black, and beige pelage, it looks like a coyote. But, as Fish and Wildlife biologist Thomas Decker points out, it weighed 72 pounds at death, and it's built like a wolf.
"It's smaller than a wolf, and larger than a coyote," Decker said. "It's a hybrid" -- a cross -- "between a large, eastern coyote and a wolf."
He said the animal's ancestry was confirmed by genetic testing.
What it is not, he said, is a cross with a domestic dog.
In fact, none of the coyotes tested in New England in recent years have turned out to carry dog genes, Decker said.
In New Hampshire, Eric Orf, a biologist with the state Fish and Game Department, agrees with Decker, saying it is "wrong" to call the animals "coydogs," because they have no dog DNA.
The "coywolf" is thus becoming a poster animal for issues that biologists, farmers, and sportsmen are trying to sort out: What are the "coyotes" now seen or killed in the Kingdom? And where do they come from?
For answers, researchers are turning more and more to genetic studies, called DNA profiles.
The answers that geneticists come up with will help shape wildlife management plans -- and may be decisive in the question as to whether wolves should be reintroduced in New England.
In point of fact, as hybrids, wolves already are here.
Several years ago, for example, Donald "Rocky" Larocque of Lyndonville, who is a mechanic for the St. Johnsbury highway department, was hunting deer in East Barnet. It was late in the season -- Thanksgiving, he recalled in a phone interview - and late in the day he encountered a large "coyote" and shot it.
The animal, a female, weighed about 60 pounds, and appeared heavyset, more like a wolf than a coyote. Larocque said he showed it to Rodney Zwick, a professor at Lyndon State College, who was impressed enough to send the animal to a biologist in Kansas.
Its DNA was tested, and it was "part wolf," Larocque said.
Based on DNA tests, a picture is emerging on the relationship of coyotes and other wild canines in the Northeast, although the history is still quite fuzzy.
In the Colonial era, there were few if any coyotes in New England. Wolves were here.
But, strangely, because there are so few ancient wolf specimens still around in museums, DNA research to determine what kind of wolves they were cannot be done, according to a pair of biologists, Paul J. Wilson, a DNA profiler at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and Walter J. Jakubas, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The scant evidence, according to Jakubas, suggests they were not "timber wolves," or gray wolves (Canis lupus), as northern and western wolves now are called. Rather, he said they appear to have been similar to the red wolves (Canis rufus) found in Canada's Algonquin Provincial Park north of Toronto. Red wolves are also in the southeastern U.S., where a captive breeding project has been started to save them from extinction.
The settlement of New England destroyed or drove off the resident wolves, according to the scenario developed by Jakubas and Wilson. In the last century, they speculate, coyotes replaced wolves, filling their empty biological niche. The researchers said coyotes appear much abler than wolves to live among people.
What is unclear, is where the coyotes came from. "We don't know," Decker said.
Eastern coyotes are larger and heavier at 32 to 38 pounds than western coyotes at 22 to 30 pounds.
The diet of eastern coyotes includes white-tailed deer, while western coyotes feed mostly on rabbits and small game. The coyote in the Fish and Wildlife conference room had four pounds of deer meat in his belly when he died. But, aside from diet, part of the reason for the eastern coyotes' larger size may be hybridization with wolves.
The Fish and Wildlife specimen and Rocky Larocque's animal certainly have wolf genes.
More tellingly, a study by Wilson and Jakubas shows that of 100 coyotes collected in Maine, 22 had half or more wolf ancestry -- and one was 89 percent wolf.
Over half of the specimens had eastern coyote ancestry, but only 4 percent were mostly descended from western coyotes (Canis latrans).
"The [introduction] of eastern Canadian wolf genes into eastwardly expanding coyotes could have provided a composite genome [Canis latrans X lycaon] that facilitated selection of animals with a larger body size ... that may be more adept at preying on deer than smaller western coyotes," Wilson and Jakubas report in their study. The study, co-written with Shevenell Mullen of the University of Maine, is awaiting publication.
In plain language, Wilson said his work suggests the large, eastern coyotes in Canada are hybrids of the smaller western coyotes and wolves that met and mated decades ago as the coyotes moved toward New England from their earlier western ranges. The animals, he said, may become amplified in size by further crossings between the now-larger eastern coyotes and Canadian wolves.
Vermont's Tom Decker said he wants to see more evidence published to support that view. However, he said, collecting evidence is difficult since no systematic genetic sampling of the state's coyotes has been done.
The gaps may soon be filled. Biologist Roland Kays, who is curator of the New York State Museum in Albany, said he and his associates are planning a major investigation to supplement the study by Wilson and Jakubas of coyotes from Maine. Their work "opens up a lot of new questions," Kays said.
Between 100 and 1,000 animals from throughout New York and New England will need to be studied to sort out their backgrounds, he said.
Kays and his associates would like to get samples, particularly whole animals, along with information on where they were from. He can be reached for further information at 518-486-2005.
The outcome of further studies could discourage wildlife officials and conservationists who have talked about reintroducing wolves to the Northeast, Decker said.
The usual goal of reintroduction efforts is to preserve true species, not create more hybrids.
The other side of the reintroduction coin is that hybrids may be better suited than purebred wolves to survive in 21st century New England.
"Once you get that coyote-and-wolf hybrid," Paul Wilson said, "it is a very adaptable animal."
Copyright 2005, The Caledonian Record.