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Commentary: Eastern Coyotes have Wolf Ancestry, not Dog DNA

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Theories about the origin of eastern coyotes are about as popular as the animals themselves are unpopular among hunters — and pet owners — in the Southern Tier.

Back when I frequently encountered the experts along Mahogany Ridge (note to those younger than 50: ancient jargon for “barrooms”), the subjects were often referred to as “coydogs” and everyone knew that they were the product of an amorous coyote from God Knows Where and a dog.

Today, biologists are sufficiently well versed to assure us that this was not the case. But the exact origin of the eastern coyote is still a bit foggy.

Most biologists today believe that the eastern coyote is a result of crossbreeding between western coyotes and Canadian wolves. Historians argue that the eastern coyotes are the “wolves” that were here when colonists arrived.

One thing is clear. The eastern coyote is more than just a coyote. The Pennsylvania Game Commission notes that in 1991, Robert Wayne of the University of California and Niles Lehman of the Scripps Research Institute of California showed through DNA analysis that eastern coyotes have wolf genes. More recent research has affirmed this.

But when did they interbreed? No one knows. No one probably ever will.

We do know that Roland Kays, Curator of Mammals of the New York State Museum, once researched the genetics of more than 700 eastern coyotes (east of Ohio to Maine; north to Quebec; south to New Jersey and Pennsylvania).

He found that 20 percent had a type of DNA typical to wolves from eastern Canada and the Great Lakes region. Only one sample out of 700-plus was dog-like.

He also measured 196 skulls from the northeast, confirming that they were larger than their western cousins, especially in being extra wide.

Biologically, it appears that larger skulls and jaws allow the animals to hunt and eat deer. The increased consumption of deer in the east is one of the prime ecological differences from western coyotes.

Also eastern coyotes are sexually dimorphic, with males being larger than females. This dimorphism is also seen in wolf populations, but not in western coyotes.

The theory is that hybridization among wolves, coyotes and their resultant hybrid offspring has produced what he calls a “hybrid swarm.”

Prevailing biological theory is that the coyotes coming from the north encountered wolf populations and the resultant hybridization of bigger, more aggressive animals moved about five times faster than the one coming through Ohio, which never encountered wolf populations. That group, from their genetic DNA patterns, never faced hybridization or major barriers to their eastern movements.

Western New York and western Pennsylvania are now sort of a contact zone between the two groups, and results will add another chapter to evolving story of the eastern coyote.

Further reading

Interested in reading more about eastern coyote? Check out the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us), click on the Wildlife dropdown menu, then select “Mammals,” and click on “Coyote.”

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