June 13, 2009

Wolf or coyote? Genetics tell complicated tale

Difficult to label this North Country predator

Eleven years ago, Defenders of Wildlife put forth a wolf reintroduction proposal for the Adirondacks.

In response to that proposal, I started doing intensive library and field research, my curiosity heightened by the idea. Along the way, I learned a great deal, such as the then new scientific discovery that our coyotes are not coy dogs — coyote-dog hybrids — nor were they quite the same creatures as their western relatives, a smaller predator that subsisted on rabbits, rodents and sometimes domestic sheep.

Instead, geneticists such as Dr. Brad White of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario found eastern coyotes had wolf genes in them, individual animals having varying percentages ranging from 10 percent to almost 50 percent.

These wolf genes were, many researchers believed, the reason for the eastern coyotes' increased size, which, in turn, altered their prey base, allowing them to take larger animals, with deer and beaver an important part of their diet.

Another bit of information uncovered by the geneticists was that the relatively small eastern Canadian wolf (scientific name Canis lycaon, now called the eastern wolf) was not a smaller version of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) but rather genetically almost identical to the red wolf, thought to be on the brink of extinction in the United States.

These smaller wolves (average weight 60 to 70 pounds), under the right circumstances, will breed with coyotes (usually a young male wolf with a female coyote), the offspring being hybrids.

Some of the earliest hybrids showed up in the Tweed area of southern Ontario, a logical melting pot where coyotes were moving eastward in the early 1900s and the small eastern wolf of Algonquin Park was stressed due to a number of factors.

So, the coyotes that arrived in St. Lawrence County in the 1930s were already an altered species.

Trappers back then called them coy-dogs, and the name stuck; however, today we know you really can't have a self-sustaining coyote-dog hybrid out there because, for one, dogs breed at all times of the year, and pups born in January or February would have little chance of surviving. Also, if dog genes were an important component, we would have coyotes of all shapes, sizes and colors.

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