“Since the nineteenth century, coyotes have expanded their range north, south, east, and west. Traditionally a species of the open plains, coyotes have come to occupy rural, forested, and urban landscapes. A breeding population on suburban Long Island is all but inevitable, leaving just the question of when. With healthy populations in the northern and western suburbs, New York City lies at the front of the Eastern coyote’s range.”
This remarkable description of our newest four-footed neighbors comes from an evocative blog post by Dr. Mark Weckel, naturalist at the Gotham Coyote Project and researcher at the American Museum of Natural History.
We contacted the experts at the Gotham Coyote Project for more details, and learned the following:
“We don’t have any evidence that they’re permanently residing anywhere other than the North Bronx,” said Dr. Chris Nagy, colleague of Weckel’s at the project.
Let’s back up a second. Coyotes may now live year round in the Bronx? (Not that a coyote would know where Westchester ends and the Bronx begins.)
Originally a Midwestern species, the coyote first arrived in the Northeast in the early years of the twentieth century. It was first sighted in New York State in the 1920s, according to Weckel, an ecologist who studies coyote migration. And sightings have become more common in the northern reaches of New York City, where the Bronx borders Westchester. “By the late 1990s, [coyotes] had come to colonize all of New York State, except for Long Island,” Weckel told us.
A hidden camera in a northern NYC park (gothamcoyote.com)
The Gotham Coyote Project uses remote camera traps to track the local coyote population, and some of their images can be seen on their site. The cameras have helped prove the presence of coyotes, but they are of limited help when it comes to measuring the size of the population, because coyotes are hard to tell apart. Tigers, by comparison, have unique stripe patterns that allow scientists to identify them based on photographs. “With coyotes,” Nagy told us, “you can’t tell the difference reliably.”
But there are other methods to track who is who in the native coyote scene: Nagy plans to use scat surveys. “You can get DNA from the poop, and you can identify individual animals,” he said. Nagy also casts doubt on claims that urban coyotes have a genetic difference from rural populations. “Certainly there’s evidence that they kind of have different life history patterns,” he said, but noted that it was inaccurate to divide coyotes into “the urban guys and the rural guys. “In New York,” he said, “it’s a very very gradual transition,” from urban to natural habitats. And, he added, “There’s intermixing along that gradient.”
“Usually when you’re trying to manage wildlife, it’s really more about managing people and getting the community behind you,” said Nagy. “People are really where the work is located.” So making people comfortable is the best step to smoothing human/coyote cohabitation.
Nagy acknowledged that the risk posed by coyotes is “not zero,” but said that with a few precautions, it is minimal. “Compared to dogs, it’s nothing; compared to vehicles, it’s nothing; compared to pollution, it’s nothing,” he said. Still, researchers agree that studying coyotes has value beyond quantifiable results. Weckel, who has worked to include high school students and interested citizens from the project’s outset, said it helps with “blurring the line” between nature and city.
A coyote plays with a bottle on the frozen Pond, near 59th Street, in Central Park in 2010. (D. Bruce Yolton)
From the coyote packs that may have taken up a steady presence in city parks in the north Bronx (Gotham Coyote Project doesn’t reveal the locations of their research sites, for fear of disturbing the animals), and beyond city lines in Westchester, an occasional migrant comes far south into the metropolis. Several coyotes have traveled down into Manhattan. There was a famous visit to Central Park in 1999, followed by 2006, and then a series of visits in 2010. These wild adventures ended in capture and the carrier case, but with plenty of camera attention and public fascination beforehand.
Coyotes’ adaptability is evident in their very presence around us in the Northeast. After humans wiped out previous top predators in the region, like the Eastern wolf and the cougar, coyotes came in to fill the unoccupied niche. As Mark Weckel puts it, “the coyote is a parable for how Americans have historically interacted with nature…it’s a conservation success story, but there was no conservation plan.” With the kind of drive that suits life in the big city, coyotes are bringing the wilderness to us.
Weckel and Nagy were featured on PBS in January, in a Nature episode about urban coyotes — with the buzz-friendly name ‘coywolf,’ as the Eastern coyote does have a bit of wolf mixed in. Excerpts below:
Researchers are continuing to investigate whether the coyote’s adaptability – so evident in its presence in farflung habitats – has shown itself on the genetic level.
Javier Monzón, a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University, led the first study that showed how the Eastern coyote is genetically distinct from its Western ancestors. Drawing on previous research that had identified sequence differences between dogs and wolves, and between dogs and coyotes, Monzón investigated the hypothesis that Eastern coyotes had hybridized with wolves since their arrival.
After finding significant similarities between wolf and coyote mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed from a mother to her offspring, Monzón concluded that male wolves had been mating with female coyotes, but not the other way around. He also found that coyote samples from farther East had more genetic similarities with wolves than their Western counterparts.
Now, Monzón is looking to further his knowledge on the genetic impact of coyotes’ changed surroundings. According to his research, it seems coyote evolution has proceeded rapidly, with variation introduced by wolf hybridization as its “main driver.”
Differing with Nagy, Monzón believes there are measurable genetic differences among coyotes within the Northeast, depending on their habitats. “Urban coyotes are genetically different from forest coyotes,” he said, adding that “forest and urban are different from rural coyotes,” as well.
In his study, he sampled 427 coyotes, from agricultural, forested and suburban/urban testing sites. To account for coyotes’ range, he allowed a radius of approximately nine kilometers from the sampling site. He found genetic differences in one urban group of coyotes, which included samples from suburban/urban sites near Cape Cod, Boston, Albany, and Portland, Maine.
How fully ‘urbanized’ could Eastern coyotes get? Daniel Bogan, an animal behaviorist at Siena College, who studies coyotes in Westchester (and leads workshops on how to coexist), isn’t ready to draw conclusions. While he said coyotes might adapt their behaviors within their lifetimes, “I don’t think that there are major evolutionary changes occurring just yet in their interactions with people.”
“In a large scale, if you’re thinking about all of New York State, they’ve been moving from more natural areas to more urban and rural landscapes,” he said, acknowledging that “because the natural areas are chopped into small pieces, they end up having to using multiple remnants,” forcing coyotes to travel through developed areas.
But, according to Bogan, coyotes rarely linger near development, and have not adapted to a trash-intensive diet as they move closer to cities.
Still, he said, “It’s just amazing to me how capable this animal is of just existing in so many different landscapes.” While he was not ready to draw conclusions, he tentatively pegged coyote’s success to factors like their reproduction, which occurs rapidly, begins early in their life cycles, and yields many offspring.
Coyotes have long figured in North American mythology; like Prometheus, in Native American cultures Coyote stole fire and gave it to man. Mark Weckel notes the coyote’s symbolism to a city undergoing its own rapid evolution in the face of change:
“At a time when urban conservation is red hot and we talk about farming rooftops, greening our streets, or restoring wetlands, all with an eye to a more sustainable, resilient, ‘natural’ city, the coyote should be our mascot, our flagship species.”