There’s something stunning if slightly startling about spotting (or hearing the howl of) our ubiquitous Adirondack canid. Agile and attentive, swift and stealthy, this familiar predator is a familiar and important part of our ecosystem. And yet much mystery and misunderstanding collects around this handsome neighbor, not the least of which is disagreement over whether what you’ve seen (or heard) was a coyote or a coywolf. Today I’d like to gather some helpful insights about this debate while showcasing some of the most recent Rosslyn wildlife cam photos of the carnivore in question.
The term “coywolf” is increasingly used to distinguish between the Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans) and a regional hybrid ostensibly blending coyote, wolf, and domestic dog.
By now, most of us who spend much time outside in the Adirondack Park have seen some sort of large canid that looks too big to be a Coyote, not quite big enough to be a Wolf. Quite likely, many of us have seen what some wildlife observers are calling the CoyWolf. — John Davis, January 23, 2016 (Source: Welcoming the CoyWolf: Whoever It May Be, Essex on Lake Champlain)
This topic is debated among naturalists and armchair pundits, curiously provoking much more emotional investment and editorializing than other similar topics. So, needless to say, I don’t pretend this post will decide the matter once and for all. But it just might provoke your curiosity, inspiring you to research and a little more. And perhaps these recent photos (as well as previous coyote images we’ve recorded and published) will afford you some visual context for conjuring your own opinion about the coyote-coywolf neighbor maintaining balance in our our wildway.
Let’s start with the first two photographs above, captured last Sunday. The top image of an unclose and personal encounter with a healthy and undebatable handsome wild dog was photographed on one of the Rosslyn wildlife cams exactly 18 minutes prior to my arrival on cross-country skies with John and Denise to download the photos. In other words, almost enjoyed this face-to-face encounter in person rather than digital facsimile. And about three and a half hours later, while John, Denise, and I were wrapping up a tasty brunch indoors, this same coyote (or coywolf?) returned in the opposite direction, perhaps after a similarly tasty brunch.
Persecution and Evolution
Too often conversation about the coyote involves judging it a nuisance or a threat. And too often “controlling” and/or attempting to eradicate the perceived nuisance or threat is treated as reasonable and even ethical. Our opinion differs profoundly, and the Rosslyn wildlife sanctuary is in no small part an effort to protect and preserve an essential part of our ecosystem. (I will defer frequently in this post to John Davis, our rewilding steward, who is far better versed in the merits and circumstances of both the Eastern Coyote and the Coywolf.)
The Coyotes and CoyWolves we’re seeing in the Adirondacks and Vermont are being heavily persecuted, which may not much depress their numbers (Coyotes practice compensatory reproduction) but upsets their social dynamics, and causes untold individual suffering.
Killing these apex predators is wrong… — John Davis, January 30, 2016 (Source: Wrong to Kill Coyotes, Wolves and CoyWolves, Essex on Lake Champlain)
Please read “Friend of Foe: Eastern Coyote” for a more detailed look at precisely why killing these apex predators is wrong.
Now let’s examine the intriguing overlap of DNA that appears to be altering the native Eastern Coyote population, blending the bloodlines of three different canids.
We have in northern New York an illuminating experiment that we may do well to let play out. Coyotes have interbred with wolves, producing a bigger, more wolf-like eastern coyote, or coy-wolf, which is hunting in packs and occasionally taking down whitetailed deer…” — John Davis, November 1, 2016 (Source: “We Shouldn’t Hunt Moose“, Adirondack Council)
Coyotes and wolves have interbred. Not by whimsical accident or desire, but by necessity. But more on that in a moment. First a look at the first time I began to realize firsthand that the coyotes I was experiencing seemed different.
The coyote—or possibly “coywolf”—was easily as large as a malamute… and the head and tail were notably larger than other coyotes I’ve seen…
I have witnessed firsthand coyotes of significantly larger proportions. My first experience took place almost a decade ago while brush-hogging one of the rear meadows. The coyote—or possibly “coywolf”—was easily as large as a malamute and considerably more robust than the coyotes in these trail cam photos. Coloring was mottled grays and browns, and the head and tail were notably larger than other coyotes I’ve seen.
My second experience was more recent.
An almost black coyote/”coywolf” of still larger proportions was startled by me during an early morning orchard inspection. S/he loped away from me across the near meadow, slowly and confidently, gliding through the high grass with a confidence and elegance I’ve never before witnessed among coyotes. (Source: Coyotes Captured on Camera, May 10, 2017)
These sightings of larger canids, especially when the question of interbreeding with wolves enters the equation, alarm many homeowners and farmers.
Conversation about coyotes, coywolves, and most other apex predators inevitably incites worry among pet owners, farmers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Popular mythology has long touted the ferocity of our charismatic, carnivorous neighbors. While we are wise to respect their feral nature, wise to minimize risk to our domesticated animals, and prudent to ensure that we not take undue risks or provoke wild animals of any sort, it’s also important to balance our concerns with a scientifically sound understanding. It’s even more important to adapt and embrace cohabitation; our ecosystem will pay dividends and our own health and pleasure will benefit immeasurably. — Geo Davis, January 6, 2022 (Source: Friend or Foe: Eastern Coyote)
And this blurred barrier between coyotes and wolves becomes even more complex, and for some homeowners and farmers, even more threatening, when we consider the fact that our domestic dogs have also sometimes interbred with their wild cousins.
Our beloved dogs, of course, are in the same family as wolves, coyotes, and foxes. Indeed, domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, are closely enough related to both wolves and coyotes that interbreeding does occasionally happen, when a dog goes feral. Our big eastern coyotes can be nearly a third wolf in genetic material but also may have small vestiges of the domestic dog genome. — John Davis, December 15, 2022 (Source: “Dogs of the North Country”, Adirondack Council)
There’s plenty of interesting information if you’re interested in researching further, and the graphic, Eastern Coyote Genetics – What is a “Coywolf?” from the Wolf Conservation Center is a visually useful reminder for the evolutionary breakdown of the coywolf.
Let’s wrap up with a few helpful tidbits and links from John Davis that help illuminate the coy wolf’s fascinating evolution happening in our time and presence.
What is a Coywolf?
The CoyWolf is a skilled predator combining the wily nature of the Coyote with a healthy mixture of Eastern Wolf (resulting in more heft and power) and perhaps also a small amount of our beloved domestic dog (resulting in more nerve around humans). Recent genetic testing suggests that these hybrid canids are probably on average something like two-thirds Coyote, nearly one-third Wolf, and a small fraction domestic dog. — John Davis, January 23, 2016 (Source: Welcoming the CoyWolf: Whoever It May Be, Essex on Lake Champlain)
From Whence the Coywolf?
How the CoyWolf emerged is a long, fascinating, and somewhat mysterious story. To greatly oversimplify, eastern North America originally had two or three Wolf species, at least one of which (now known as Red Wolf and surviving in tiny, imperiled numbers in coastal North Carolina) was closely related genetically to the Coyote. When European settlers eradicated our large Wolf species, they left a void that Coyotes moved in from the west to fill.
As Coyotes colonized eastern North America, they occasionally interbred with remnant Wolf populations in eastern Canada, and then moved south into the northeastern US. Coyotes in the US Southeast apparently came by a more southerly route (and were released by hunters, some accounts suggest) and did not interbreed with the larger Wolves (but do so now with Red Wolves), so are generally not as big as our northern Coyotes. — John Davis, January 23, 2016 (Source: Welcoming the CoyWolf: Whoever It May Be, Essex on Lake Champlain)
How to Respect the Coywolf?
In my opinion, informed by thousands of miles of rambling Eastern forests and listening to and reading the words of naturalists and biologists, it is time to recognize this charismatic canid. Specifically we should:
- welcome the CoyWolf,
- consider the CoyWolf a native top predator,
- and protect the CoyWolf as an integral part of healthy ecosystems.
The CoyWolf may be partly a consequence of human modifications of natural systems, but its emergence offers glorious evidence that evolution still works, even in our fragmented world. The Coyote and the CoyWolf are important regulators of prey populations which otherwise might grow out of balance with harmful results for natural and human communities. Plus, these big wild dogs are beautiful creatures, worthy of our respect and admiration. — John Davis, January 23, 2016 (Source: Welcoming the CoyWolf: Whoever It May Be, Essex on Lake Champlain)
What do you think?