For thousands of years, North Carolina was wolf pack country. I don’t mean all its inhabitants loved N.C. State University, I mean that there were packs of wolves – once the top predator – roaming the state. Then humans arrived with guns and plows and drove them out. Thereafter, the only canines seen would have been pet dogs.
Wolves were introduced into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987, but they have not spread much. They remain a curiosity for most Carolinians. Things got interesting when coyotes reached the Tar Heel State in the mid-1980s. These adaptable canids expanded out of the western United States, colonizing eastern forests for the first time. Look back in the fossil record for North Carolina and you’ll see wolves, but no coyotes.
Coyotes were restricted to the open country and dry lands of the American West for millennia, so what changed to spur their eastward migration? The extinction of wolves from the East is certainly part of the explanation. Nature hates a vacuum. Plus, there were all those deer.
White-tailed deer live in such abundance in much of the East that they are often considered a pest. Coyotes have taken advantage of this surplus, feasting on fawns and roadkill and weeding out the sick and weak adults. Deer typically make up one- to two-thirds of the diet of eastern coyotes. Despite this, coyotes don’t seem to be making a dent in deer populations, as deer herds have only continued to grow since the arrival of coyotes. Surprisingly, western coyotes also live with deer but rarely eat them. How do the eastern coyotes manage to make a healthy living off such large prey?
We now know that the eastern coyote is actually an evolutionary mutt. It is still mostly coyote, but it has a dash of wolf and domestic dog genes (about 8 percent each) mixed in. This new genetic material allowed it to rapidly evolve into a slightly larger animal – big enough to sometimes prey on deer, but wily enough to coexist with people.
Biologically, North Carolina is now “coyote-pack” country. The eastern coyote is a new subspecies, perhaps, but certainly not unique enough to be considered a new full species. Coyotes don’t actually hunt in packs much and aren’t quite as fierce as wolves, so don’t expect any universities to change their mascot to fit this new ecological reality.
Roland Kays is the head of the Biodiversity Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and a professor in the Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program at N.C. State. He will be giving a talk about coyotes at the museum on the evening of Dec. 3. Details: www.naturalsciences.org.