Jeff Green | Dec 11, 2008
Outdoors - Wolves and Coyotes
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - December 11, 2008 Wolves and Coyotes: Part 1 Outdoors in the Land O'Lakesby Steve Blight
Photos: The grey wolf (l) and the eastern coyote (r)
A common nature question in our area goes something like this: “I saw a wolf or a coyote or something the other day – what do you think I saw?” In all likelihood the answer is an Eastern Coyote – a wolf-coyote hybrid, also known as the Tweed Wolf or the Brush Wolf, that has developed in response to radically changing conditions in eastern North America over the past 200 years. This column will focus on how the Eastern Coyote became the common “canid” in our area, while the next column will describe it and its habits in more detail.
Recently there has been a lot of sophisticated genetics-based research undertaken to try to sort out the complex wolf-coyote situation in eastern North America. A couple of years ago, a report out of Trent University in Peterborough shed some new light on how the Eastern Coyote became the common canid in our area. It turns out that the story is especially interesting in central Ontario – researchers fondly refer to this region as “Canis soup”. What this means is that they are finding a real hodgepodge of species, subspecies, hybrids and partial hybrids in different parts of central Ontario. Moreover, the situation has changed a lot over the last century, and it continues to evolve today.
Prior to European settlement, scientists believe that there were three main species of wild canids in North America. Let’s start with the Grey Wolf (Canis lupis), a species that migrated to North America about 300,000 years ago from Eurasia that was confined mainly to coniferous or mixed forest regions of northern and western North America. These areas typically also were inhabited by moose, caribou and elk, the prey animals on which the Grey Wolves depended. The second species was the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon), a smaller wolf species native to the more southern deciduous forests that preyed primarily on white-tailed deer. The third was the Western Coyote (Canis latrans), a small canid that was found in the more arid and open plains of the west. There is evidence that the Eastern Wolf and the Western Coyote evolved together over many thousands of years, and eventually became separated from each other based on habitat – the Eastern Wolf out-competed the coyote in the white-tailed deer rich eastern forests, while the coyote thrived on the plains. At that time, the line separating the northern Grey Wolf from the more southern Eastern Wolf was located at approximately the St Lawrence River, and there were no coyotes at all in the forests of eastern North America.
When Europeans arrived and began clearing the forests for agriculture and forestry, this brought about drastic changes. First, the newly created open country provided excellent habitat for the Western Coyote, and it expanded rapidly eastwards. In addition, the Grey Wolf, along with its principal prey animals – elk, caribou and moose – were essentially wiped out in the southern parts of their ranges, causing their ranges to contract well to the north. At the same time, white-tailed deer expanded rapidly northwards, and the Eastern Wolf was severely persecuted and lost much of its original southern habitat. It was pushed mainly to the north following the deer and to a very few isolated pockets elsewhere in North America. In addition, there was another important factor at work during this period, and one that continues today – hybridization. The Eastern Wolf interbred very readily with the Coyote, and to a lesser but still important degree with the Grey Wolf to the north. The Grey Wolf and the Coyote do not easily interbreed with each other.
These factors created the situation we have today. The Grey Wolf is now located well to the north, and is unlikely to ever be seen in our area. The range of the Eastern Wolf now consists of a band across southern Quebec starting at the Gulf of St Lawrence, stretching across central Ontario, north of lakes Huron and Superior, and across southern Manitoba. The closest part of the Eastern Wolf’s range to our area is Algonquin Park. The Eastern Wolves in the southern part of their range show a small degree of hybridization with Coyotes, and are relatively small. The Eastern Wolves on the northern side of their range show some evidence of hybridization with Grey Wolves, and as a result are a bit larger.
This leaves the coyote. When the coyote expanded eastwards, it began to contact residual pockets of Eastern Wolves, and interbreeding resulted in the creation of what many people believe is a new animal, the Eastern Coyote. It is significantly larger and more wolf-like than the original Western Coyote, and is well adapted to the patchy forest and farmland of southern Ontario as well as the Maritimes, New York State, New England and extreme southern Quebec. In Ontario it demonstrates a large variation in size across its range, from small animals in south-western Ontario to the larger animals with more Eastern Wolf in them that we are likely to encounter in the Frontenac Arch.
In the next column, we will take a closer look at the Eastern Coyote in more detail.