by Stephen Williams, The Daily Gazette
It’s one of the great animal kingdom migrations of the last century — the arrival and flourishing of the coyote in the eastern United States.
The thick-furred canine and its high-pitched, ethereal yips and howls have become commonplace across the Capital Region over the last 30 years. Even suburbanites hear them.
The eastern coyote is a bigger and more aggressive beast than its western counterpart — capable of taking down deer, rather than living off rabbits, squirrels and mice. So almost since their first appearances in the 1950s and 1960s, people have asked: Could this animal be part wolf?
The answer turns out to be yes.
“It’s kind of the wolf sneaking back in coyote’s clothing,” said Dr. Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum.
An extensive genetic study of nearly 700 coyotes taken by hunters from Maine to Ohio, led by Kays, found the coyotes of upstate New York and New England have from 10 percent to 20 percent wolf DNA.
Wolves were once native to New York state, but were hunted to extinction by about 1893 when the last known native animal was killed in the Adirondacks. That meant there was no top predator roaming the forests, leaving an opening for coyotes to move east through wolf country in Canada.
“It looks like at some point there was some hybridization,” Kays said.
State museum bird curator Jeremy Kirchman and Abigail Curtis, then a University at Albany undergrad, were co-authors of the study.
A research team on Cape Cod, which only looked at eastern Massachusetts coyotes, came to the same conclusion about the same time.
The two findings, published in scientific journals, have generated attention in the mainstream press, including a recent story about the spread of New York’s coyotes in the New York Times. Coyotes in recent years have even turned up in Central Park in the middle of New York City.
Eastern coyotes resemble German shepherds and weight 35-45 pounds, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The best estimates are that there are now 20,000 to 30,000 coyotes in the state.
Children were attacked by a coyote in two separate incidents this past summer in Westchester County. But coyote attacks on humans are very rare, though state officials say the risk may be growing as coyotes become acclimated to people.
Coyotes can be hunted or trapped in New York state this year from Oct. 1 to March 27, and some hunting groups support extending the season.
However, the New York State Conservation Council, a sport hunting group, at its annual meeting in Utica last month voted down a resolution supporting a year-round season. Group members nevertheless feel more coyotes need to be hunted.
The museum’s finding about wolf genes adds a new twist to the public debate.
Kays said, “A lot of people like them, a lot of people hate them, but either way they’re interested in what we find.”
Using records mostly from kills by hunters, Kays has pieced together a lot of information about coyotes’ eastward migration during the 20th century, determining that there have been two different waves.
While one strain of coyote has traveled slowly east through Ohio and Pennsylvania since about the 1940s and has shown no sign of hybridization, a second group has come both farther and faster by going north of the Great Lakes through Ontario, reaching the Adirondacks in the 1950s. Those coyotes cross-bred with existing gray wolf populations in Ontario, Kays believes.
Such breeding across species is rare but can occur when animal populations are low, leaving females with fewer choices of mates, Kays said. He believes the hybridization likely occurred around 1920 in Canada and today’s coyotes carry those genes.
“As a result, [the eastern coyotes] were larger, they had larger skulls and they colonized much faster,” Kays said.
With the state’s coyote population large enough to sustain itself, Kays said he’s seen no evidence of coyotes interbreeding with domestic dogs. “Coydogs,” he said, are just coyotes.
He said the coyote’s arrival has created something of a dilemma. “On one hand, it’s an invasive species, but on the other hand they are filling an important ecological niche that used to be filled by wolves.”
A study in the 1990s looked at whether wolves could be returned to the Adirondacks, but ultimately found the idea wasn’t feasible. The idea was controversial at the time and discussion of it has been dropped.
Coyotes are generally extremely shy of humans, though there’s evidence their diets occasionally includes cats. Kays said their hunting ranges aren’t large and are often limited by an apparent fear of crossing roads. Coyote road-kill mortality is quite high, a study done in the Albany Pine Bush found.
The coyote-wolf question has been on or near the top of the agenda since Kays came to the State Museum a decade ago to be its top mammal researcher.
“It struck me as a really interesting evolution story and it’s almost contemporary,” he said. “When I got here and was looking for projects, this was pretty interesting.”
Kays’ research is going to figure prominently in a future museum exhibit on New York’s coyotes, said State Museum Director Clifford Siegfried. He said such research is central to the museum’s mission of exploring the natural and cultural history of the state.
“Roland’s research is an excellent example of how museum research is changing as researchers adopt modern technological approaches to investigate collections that may be hundreds of years old,” Siegfried said.
A researcher’s migration
Kays, 39, grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he roamed in the woods and learned the outdoor ethic as a Boy Scout.
He enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca with an interest in biology and genetics.
“I ended up really liking upstate New York, and meeting my wife as well,” he said.
From Ithaca, he went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for his doctorate in wildlife biology. He did research on kinkajous — a small nocturnal mammal found in the trees of Central American rain forests.
After that came post-doctoral work at the Field Museum in Chicago, studying lions in Africa. It was during that period that he interviewed for the mammal curator position at the State Museum.
“I was actually offered the job by satellite phone in the middle of Kenya. It’s pretty funny,” he said.
Kays, who either bicycles or unicycles the five miles from his Guilderland home to the downtown Albany museum except in cold weather, works on the museum’s third floor where its research staff is congregated.
The landmark museum at the Empire State Plaza is best known for its extensive public exhibits on the human and natural history of New York state, but it also carries on extensive scientific and historic research, much of it funded by federal and private grants.
On the third floor, off-limits to the general public but open to students and researchers, the museum maintains a collection of bones, scat and other biological material that — just under Kays’ domain — ranges from mice to sperm whale bones.
It has the equipment to do sophisticated chemical and DNA analysis and saves older samples for retesting as new testing techniques are developed. “People are always inventing new tests to do on animals,” Kays said.
One project he’s been working on recently is trying to determine the source of a purebred gray wolf that was shot by a hunter in the town of Day, Saratoga County, in 2002. There were questions about whether it was coyote or wolf, but genetic testing in 2004 determined it was a wolf.
His study — which he can’t discuss while it is under peer review — is looking at information that can be gleaned about the animal’s diet from analyzing its bone composition. Knowing its diet should help answer the question of whether it was an escaped or released pet, or a genuinely wild wolf that had traveled down from Canada.
Kays is also currently tracking the adaptation of fishers to suburban environments.
Fishers — a weasel-like carnivore once thought to stick to deep wilderness habitats — are now being found in suburban woods, even tiny patches of trees between housing developments in Niskayuna and Glenville.
“Fishers are making a rapid adaptation to living in urban-suburban areas,” Kays said.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 885-6705 or email@example.com. Copyright (c) 2010 The Daily Gazette Co. All Rights Reserved.
Published in November/December Newsletter 2010