By Dr. Becker
What happens when you cross a wolf with a coyote, and add in a bit of dog DNA for good measure? Most breeding between animal species results in offspring that is less robust than its non-interbred peers, and in some cases the offspring may not survive at all.
But in the case of coyotes and wolves, the combination has proven to be an exception. In fact, the relatively new animal, known by many names including eastern coyote, coydog and coywolf, is incredibly adaptable, skilled and smart.
While wolves typically prefer finding prey in forests and coyotes are the opposite, preferring open areas, the coywolf is “skilled at catching prey in both open terrain and densely wooded areas,” Roland Kays, PhD of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, told The Economist.1
And that’s not their only advantage.
The Coywolf: 'Greater Than the Sum of its Parts'
When researchers analyzed DNA from 437 coywolves, they found coyote DNA is dominant while wolf DNA makes up about one-quarter of the animals’ genetic material and dog DNA one-tenth (primarily from larger breeds like Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds).
How did this unique mix come to be? According to The Economist:2
“ … [W]olves faced with a scarcity of potential sexual partners are not beneath lowering their standards. It was desperation of this sort, biologists reckon, that led dwindling wolf populations in southern Ontario to begin, a century or two ago, breeding widely with dogs and coyotes.
The clearance of forests for farming, together with the deliberate persecution which wolves often suffer at the hand of man, had made life tough for the species.
That same forest clearance, though, both permitted coyotes to spread from their prairie homeland into areas hitherto exclusively lupine, and brought the dogs that accompanied the farmers into the mix.”
The end result is an animal that’s “greater than the sum of its parts.” Weighing about 55 pounds, coywolves are about two times the size of regular coyotes, with bigger jaws and more muscle to match.
According to The Economist, “individual coywolves can take down small deer. A pack of them can even kill a moose.” Their physical prowess is perhaps only matched by their mental abilities; coywolves are known to look both ways before crossing a road.
Uniquely Suited for City Life
Coywolves also benefit from their wild and domesticated roots. Their wolf and coyote genes prepare them for life in the wild, but their dog DNA makes them remarkably suited to living in urban areas. Unlike wolves, which generally prefer to live away from humans, coywolves are not as bothered by people and noise.
Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and even New York City are home to a growing number of coywolves. The animals can be found in the U.S. northeast with their range quickly expanding in the southeast.
Their lineage makes them uniquely suited to thrive virtually anywhere, be it city streets or farm fields. The Economist continued:3
“ … [I]nterbreeding may have helped coywolves urbanize in another way, too, by broadening the animals’ diet. Having versatile tastes is handy for city living. Coywolves eat pumpkins, watermelons and other garden produce, as well as discarded food.
They also eat rodents and other smallish mammals. Many lawns and parks are kept clear of thick underbrush, so catching squirrels and pets is easy. Cats are typically eaten skull and all, with clues left only in the droppings.
Thanks to this bounty, an urban coywolf need occupy only half the territory it would require in the countryside. And getting into town is easy. Railways provide corridors that make the trip simple for animals as well as people …
As well as having small territories, coywolves have adjusted to city life by becoming nocturnal … Kays marvels at this 'amazing contemporary evolution story that’s happening right underneath our nose.'”
The Coywolf May Not Be Its Own New Species
There is some debate over whether or not the coywolf is actually a new species. While some believe coywolves are genetically different enough to deserve a designation of their own, others, including Kays, say not so fast.
It appears that there is widespread intermixing of coyotes with other species, with the “blend” depending on locale. According to Kays in IFL Science:4
“New genetic tests show that all eastern coyotes are actually a mix of three species: coyote, wolf and dog. The percentages vary, dependent upon exactly which test is applied and the geographic location of the canine.
Coyotes in the Northeast are mostly (60%-84%) coyote, with lesser amounts of wolf (8%-25%) and dog (8%-11%). Start moving south or east and this mixture slowly changes.
Virginia animals average more dog than wolf (85%:2%:13% coyote:wolf:dog) while coyotes from the Deep South had just a dash of wolf and dog genes mixed in (91%:4%:5% coyote:wolf:dog).
Tests show that there are no animals that are just coyote and wolf (that is, a coywolf), and some eastern coyotes that have almost no wolf at all. In other words, there is no single new genetic entity that should be considered a unique species … The coywolf is not a thing.”
Kays argues that eastern coyotes did interbreed with dogs and wolves, but that’s a thing of the past.
“Nowadays, eastern coyotes have no problem finding a coyote mate. Their populations continue to grow throughout their new forested range, and they seem more likely to kill a dog than breed with it. Wolf populations in the Great Lakes have also recovered, and the wolf is once again the worst enemy of the coyote, rather than its last-chance prom date,” he states.5
Rather than an entirely new species, the coywolf may simply be an example of natural selection at its finest. The new genetic mixture — larger size, stronger jaws, a more varied diet and a penchant for urban living –— likely offers a significant survival advantage, which means the traits are bound to stick around for some time.