coyote adaptability

In the last couple of months, I have awakened in the middle of the night to a familiar yet surprising sound: the wail of the coyote. You are probably associate this mournful and, at the same time, frightening sound with the wide open Savannah of Idaho and the Midwest. But Marin County, California? Coyotes strutting through downtown Palo Alto, at the heart Silicon Valley and tech-billionaire country? What in the world? There is no safe place anymore. Indeed, this is a story of a species that is changing its habits, its habitat, even its shape. and it’s all driven by us.


The new top dog

Sharon Levy relays this story, titled The New Top Dog” In the journal Nature.

“Near the dawn of time, the story goes, Coyote saved the creatures of Earth. According to the mythology of Idaho’s Nez Perce people, the monster Kamiah had stalked into the region and was gobbling up the animals one by one. The crafty Coyote evaded Kamiah but didn’t want to lose his friends, so he let himself be swallowed. From inside the beast, Coyote severed Kamiah’s heart and freed his fellow animals. Then he chopped up Kamiah and threw the pieces to the winds, where they gave birth to the peoples of the planet”.

Evolutionarily speaking, this is more credible than Adam being created out of mud and Eve out of his rib. But let’s not get into a theological argument here.

Coyotes (Canis latrans) is a close relative of the wolf (Canis lupus) and our best friend, the dog ( Canis canis). Fortunately for the coyote, he hasn’t become our best friend yet, or at least nobody would think of putting him on the roof of a car when going on vacation. But he is getting close.


Survival of the adapter

Darwin never characterized his theory of Natural Selection as “survival of the fittest.” That was Herbert Spencer, a philosopher of Darwin’s time. Darwin’s basic tenet was that adaptation is the key to survival. Environments ceaselessly change and so do lving organisms. So evolution is actually a continuous process, happening right in front of our eyes; all we need to do is keep them wide open and observe.

As the Nature article explains,

“Researchers have long known the coyote as a master of adaptation, but studies over the past few years are now revealing how these unimposing relatives of wolves and dogs have managed to succeed where many other creatures have suffered. Coyotes have flourished in part by exploiting the changes that people have made to the environment, and their opportunism goes back thousands of years. In the past two centuries, coyotes have taken over part of the wolf’s former ecological niche by preying on deer and even on an endangered group of caribou. Genetic studies reveal that the coyotes of northeastern America — which are bigger than their cousins elsewhere — carry wolf genes that their ancestors picked up through interbreeding. This lupine inheritance has given northeastern coyotes the ability to bring down adult deer — a feat seldom attempted by the smaller coyotes of the west”.

And not just deer; they even killed a 19-year-old female hiker in Nova Scotia in 2009.


What goes around comes around

The story of the coyote’s co-dependence on humans is by no means new; coyotes have been taking advantage of the changes wrought by humans for many thousands of years. A study published recently in PNAS by evolutionary biologist Julie Meachen at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina, and Joshua Samuels at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Kimberly, Oregon, made the discovery of the coyote’s ancient adaptation by measuring the size of coyote fossils dating back over the past 25,000 years. During the last ice age, coyotes were significantly larger than most of their modern counterparts and resembled the biggest of the present-day coyote–wolf hybrids in the northeast. They probably scavenged meat from kills made by dire wolves and sabre-toothed cats, and preyed on the young of the large herbivores, such as giant ground sloths, wild camels and horses, that thronged North America at that time.

But at the close of the ice age, about 13,000 years ago, most of the megafauna vanished — an extinction attributed to both climate change and the appearance of efficient Stone Age hunters. With them went the largest predators, allowing the smaller grey wolves to fill the vacant niche, which put them in competition with the largest coyotes. That conflict, as well as the loss of large herbivores, caused coyotes to shrink in stature. Within 1,000 years of the Pleistocene extinctions of 13,000 years ago, coyotes had reached the same size as in most present-day populations.

But this in not the end of the evolutionary story of the man/coyote relationship. A genetic study published in Genome Research showed evidence that some coyotes were beginning to interbreed with dogs. Much better than eating the poor pooches.


What’s next?

It really is impossible to predict. Those wily coyotes have demonstrated an uncanny capacity to adapt to humans and the environmental changes they wrought. Come to think of it, that’s exactly how the dog ended up being domesticated. Will we see in the future a new coydog pet that will be the rage in Manhatten? Will the wily mutt willingly stay strapped to a car roof? Only time and the incredibly adaptable coyote can tell.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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