No this is not the latest sci-fi channel original monster mash-up, what you may have already heard back-cabin rumors about is true, coyotes (Canis latrans) and wolves (Canis lupus) are, and have been for quite some time, interbreeding in many parts of their overlapping range. The resulting canid, dubbed a coywolf, roughly intermediate in size between a coyote and wolf, behaviorally shares several characteristics from both species. Like the wolf it shows a propensity to form packs- readily with both wolves and coyotes- and to hunt large ungulate prey. But like the coyote, and unlike the wolf, the coywolf does not have innate fear of humans and readily breeds, hunts, and lives in proximity to human habitation. North American wolves are relatively recent immigrants to the New World, evolving in India and moving across Beringia at roughly the same time modern humans did. Therefore the wolf has a long shared evolutionary history with various tool using bipedal hominids- and knows to avoid them. Coyotes evolved in the New World acting as jackal analogs alongside the larger cats, bears and dire wolves of the Pleistocene- now all extinct. Because they are much smaller and more adaptable in human presence coyotes are regular inhabitants of suburban and even urban settings ( I myself have chased a coyote out of my front yard which had cornered a neighbors' cat). In a sense the coywolf is a new superpredator for the modern age. Adaptable, large, powerful and able to tackle large prey, sociable, and able to live close to human habitation.
Contemporary evolution through human-induced hybridization occurs
throughout the taxonomic range. Formerly allopatric species appear especially
susceptible to hybridization. Consequently, hybridization is expected to be more
common in regions with recent sympatry owing to human activity than in areas
of historical range overlap. Coyotes (Canis latrans) and gray wolves (C. lupus)
are historically sympatric in western North America. Following European settlement gray wolf range contracted, whereas coyote range expanded to include eastern North America. Furthermore, wolves with New World (NW) mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotypes now extend from Manitoba to Que´bec in Canada and hybridize with gray wolves and coyotes. Using mtDNA and 12 microsatellite markers, we evaluated levels of wolf-coyote hybridization in regions
where coyotes were present (the Canadian Prairies, n = 109 samples) and
absent historically (Que´bec, n = 154). Wolves with NW mtDNA extended from
central Saskatchewan (51°N, 69°W) to northeastern Que´bec (54°N, 108°W).
On the Prairies, 6.3% of coyotes and 9.2% of wolves had genetic proﬁles suggesting wolf-coyote hybridization. In contrast, 12.6% of coyotes and 37.4% of wolves in Que´bec had proﬁles indicating hybrid origin. Wolves with NW and Old World (C. lupus) mtDNA appear to form integrated populations in both regions. Our results suggest that hybridization is more frequent in historically
allopatric populations. Range shifts, now expected across taxa following climate
change and other human inﬂuence on the environment, might therefore promote contemporary evolution by hybridization.
All right what does all that mean? Well first a little history lesson. Wolves used to inhabit the entire Eastern seaboard. A campaign of eradication, headed by no less than the Bureau of Land Management, extirpated the wolf from the East Coast of America.
Coyotes, which had long lived together with wolves in the west (sympatry) but never lived alongside wolves in the east (allopatry) began expanding their range both north and east into North America. These coyotes began meeting up with remnant populations of Canadian wolves as well as wolves moving down through the Great Lakes region from Canada. Now normally wolves will kill coyotes where they have a long history of ecological segregation. But this ecological separation was not established in this hybrid zone of the northeast. Long story short a lonely male wolf met up with a female coyote and the coywolf was born.
Some see the advent of the coywolf as a restoration of ecological balance in eastern forests- where deer populations have been without a significant predator for several generations (save humans). Others fear that the coywolf spells trouble for the genetic integrity of the true wolf and see the coywolf as a strange aberration that needs to be eliminated. Ranchers fear the economic loss from a new large predator on their herds.
Whatever your opinion of the cowolf is we are sure to hear a lot more about it because it raises some big questions; Is the coywolf federally protected like the wolf? or not, like the coyote? Do we intervene on behalf of the wolf to protect its ecological role? Will the coywolf, with its large size and lack of fear of humans pose a danger to humans?
On a final footnote the recent lone wolf who immigrated to California from Oregon, OR7 or Journey as he is known, was spotted cavorting with several coyotes in May. Could we be seeing the beginning of hybrid populations arising on both coasts?
Canid hybridization: contemporary evolution in human-modified habitats
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