Eastern coyotes have a touch of wolf in them

Bob Frye
| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

It usually takes a special kind of coyote to win the annual hunt put on by the Mosquito Creek Sportsmen's Association.

Specifically, a male, and a very big one at that.

"The top prize almost always goes to whoever can bring in the heaviest male," said Cathy Tarner, who helps promote the hunt — the state's oldest and by far its largest — for the club, which is located in Frenchville, Clearfield County.

In the five hunts held from 2005-09, 13 of the 15 heaviest coyotes weighed in were males. The four biggest — three of them males — topped 50 pounds each.

To put that in perspective, consider that coyotes — a species that developed on the Great Plains — average 20-35 pounds in Nebraska and 25-35 in Kansas, according to the wildlife agencies in those states.

Pennsylvania is able to produce animals so much larger because of genetics.

Scientists have long suspected that the Eastern coyote found in Pennsylvania and elsewhere might actually be a hybrid, the result of interbreeding with wolves. A study published this fall — which examined the DNA and skulls of nearly 700 coyotes from New York and Pennsylvania, some from the Mosquito Creek hunt — confirms that is true.

"All of these animals have some wolf in them," said Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum and lead investigator on the project.

"Our research did not allow us to say whether the animals are 25 percent wolf or 75 percent of whatever. But what we can say is that they are mostly coyote with some wolf definitely mixed in."

That hybridization likely first began half a century ago, Kays said, and involved Great Lakes wolves and coyotes. Their offspring migrated from Ontario south across the St. Lawrence River and into New York, he said.

They first appeared in Pennsylvania in the 1930s, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission records, with the first "Easter coyote" killed in the state falling in Tioga County in 1940.

They've thrived ever since, especially lately. No one can say with any degree of certainty how many coyotes the state has, said Matt Lovallo, the chief furbearer biologist for the Game Commission. But a population of 50,000 to 60,000 spread across every county in the state might be a good guess, he said.

Their numbers are likely still climbing in the southwestern and southeastern corners of the state, he added. The coyote's adaptability is part of the reason.

"A lot of the success of the Eastern coyote can be attributed to the fact that it's omnivorous," Lovallo said. "They eat not only what many people might consider prey species, but also all kinds of hard and soft mast, like nuts and berries and autumn olive, and, in suburban areas, even dog food and garbage. They're kind of unique among forest predators in that they can switch food sources pretty quickly."

Some hunters believe coyotes kill lots of whitetails, too — enough to depress deer populations.

The Eastern coyote's larger size and larger skulls equipped with more powerful jaws certainly make them capable of killing deer, and they do take their share, especially fawns in spring, Kays said. But they don't kill an inordinate number, he said.

"I don't think we have any evidence that coyotes are depredating deer to any significant level," Lovallo agreed.

Whether you love them or hate them, though — and they are a polarizing species — Eastern coyotes are amazing, Kays said.

"My take on this is that this is an animal that sort of evolved into a creature with enough wolf in it to fill a niche as a large predator, but with enough coyote still in there to deal with people," he said. "They just seem really adaptive, which has helped them survive better."

'Pure' coyotes in area

Pennsylvania is in the unique position of getting its coyotes from two different directions, according to Roland Kays.

Most of the state's coyotes are wolf-coyote hybrids that can trace their lineage to animals that migrated south from Ontario and New York, he said. But there is a much smaller group of genetically distinct, more "pure" coyotes running around, too, in the counties on the extreme western edge of the state. They may have a bit of dog DNA, but otherwise are the offspring of coyotes moving east from places like Ohio, he added.

It remains to be seen how the two populations will co-exist.

"It will be interesting over time to see if these two just kind of mix it up," he said.

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