Should You Fear the Pizzly Bear?

Sep 4, 2014

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff

In New England today, trees cover more land than they have at any time since the colonial era. Roughly 80 percent of the region is now forested, compared with just 30 percent in the late 19th century. Moose and turkey again roam the backwoods. Beavers, long ago driven from the area by trappers seeking pelts, once more dam streams. White-tailed deer are so numerous that they are often considered pests. And an unlikely predator has crept back into the woods, too: what some have called the coywolf. It is both old and new — roughly one-quarter wolf and two-thirds coyote, with the rest being dog.

The animal comes from an area above the Great Lakes, where wolves and coyotes live — and sometimes breed — together. At one end of this canid continuum, there are wolves with coyote genes in their makeup; at the other, there are coyotes with wolf genes. Another source of genetic ingredients comes from farther north, where the gray wolf, a migrant species originally from Eurasia, resides. “We call it canis soup,” says Bradley White, a scientist at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, referring to the wolf-coyote hybrid population.

The creation story White and his colleagues have pieced together begins during European colonization, when the Eastern wolf was hunted and poisoned out of existence in its native Northeast. A remnant population — “loyalists” is how White refers to them — migrated to Canada. At the same time, coyotes, native to the Great Plains, began pushing eastward and mated with the refugee wolves. Their descendants in turn bred with coyotes and dogs. The result has been a creature with enough strength to hunt the abundant woodland deer, which it followed into the recovering Eastern forests. Coywolves, or Eastern coyotes, as White prefers to call them, have since pushed south to Virginia and east to Newfoundland. The Eastern coyote is a study in the balancing act required to survive as a medium-size predator in a landscape full of people. It can be as much as 40 percent larger than the Western coyote, with powerful wolflike jaws; it has also inherited the wolf’s more social nature, which allows for pack hunting. (In 2009, a pack of Eastern coyotes attacked and killed a 19-year-old Canadian folk singer named Taylor Mitchell in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.) But it shares with coyotes, some 2,000 of which live within Chicago’s city limits, a remarkable ability to thrive in humanized landscapes.

“We’re kind of privileged in the last 100 years to watch the birth of this entity,” White told me, “and now the evolution of this entity across this North American landscape that we’ve modified.” Evolutionarily speaking, coyotes diverged from gray wolves one million to two million years ago, and dogs from wolves roughly 15,000 years ago. Yet over the past century, as agriculture moved to the Midwest and California, farmland in the East reverted to woodlands. The rise of fossil fuels reduced the demand for firewood. Forests spread, and deer and other prey proliferated, while human intolerance for wolves kept a potential competitor at bay.

Thus did humans inadvertently create an ecological niche for a predator in one of the most densely populated regions of the country. In an exceedingly brief period, coyote, wolf and dog genes have been remixed into something new: a predator adapted to a landscape teeming with both prey and another apex predator, us. And this mongrel continues to evolve. Javier Monzon, an evolutionary biologist at Stony Brook University, has found that Eastern coyotes living in areas with the highest densities of deer also carry the greatest number of wolf genes. Another scholar of the Eastern coyote — Roland Kays, a zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh — estimates that the Eastern coyote’s hybrid ancestry has allowed it to expand its range five times as fast as nonhybrid coyotes could have. In the urbanized Northeast, of all places, an abundance of large prey seems to have promoted a predator whose exceptional adaptability has derived, in large part, from the hodgepodge nature of its genome.

11 comments on “Should You Fear the Pizzly Bear?

  • evolution (well, actually hibridisation… but at least we did nothing intentionally to make these animals, just all natures doing, sparked by out more or less intentional remodelling of the landscape..) in the making.. let those god-damned relidiots deny it now.. which of course they will, being that they are idiots…



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  • I agree a hybrid… It raises and interesting question in what role hybridization plays in evolution…. To my mind it would be somewhat of an accelerating factor reintroducing two species or subspecies that are separated not so much genetically but certainly morphologically…much in the same way all non-africans aren’t really humans given their ancient neanderthal DNA but more of a hybrid…

    Although I’d be pretty sure most of the religious would be desperate to counteract my reclassification of what they see as ‘humans’ there with a nice pile of nonsense and utter rubbish based on zero information.

    But hey, I didn’t create the concept of hybrid… I’m just applying it as the dictionary tells me to!



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  • 3
    aquilacane says:

    My neighbourhood is full of these guys. They are literally in my back yard (literally not figuratively). I’ve seen them regularly in the area and I know people who have had their pets snatched up by them.

    One jumped a fence, snatched the dog, and jumped over the fence again. It happened while everyone watched from the back porch.

    There is a river (16 Mile Creek) that cuts right through Downtown Oakville (Ontario, Canada). The Coyotes and foxes come down into town (sometimes right downtown) for free food—garbage, pets, and so on—no children yet. Toronto is swarming with them too. They’re scruffy looking bastards and some are pretty big; they would mess you up.

    Not sure which of these hybrids we have but they are surely a lot more than your average coyote (shit your pants more).



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  • Good!

    I have always backed hybridization speciation and it seems to be busting out all over in North America.

    Canis coywolf!

    PS: To those dichotomizing hybridization and evolution, remember. Evolution is the change in allele frequency over time in a population of organisms. That which is happening here.



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  • @OP – In New England today, trees cover more land than they have at any time since the colonial era. Roughly 80 percent of the region is now forested, compared with just 30 percent in the late 19th century. Moose and turkey again roam the backwoods. Beavers, long ago driven from the area by trappers seeking pelts, once more dam streams. White-tailed deer are so numerous that they are often considered pests. And an unlikely predator has crept back into the woods, too: what some have called the coywolf.

    Human interference with the forest ecosystem and persecution of wolves, has thrown various, previously geographically isolated species and sub-species, into the mix, for natural selection to match up with, and tune to, the revamped environment.

    Evolution working as usual!



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  • As regards the OP image, there is potential for hybrid escapes to produce a similar hybrid population containing wild cat family genes.

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/51250/8-cat-breeds-wild-roots

    http://cats.animal-world.com/Hybrid-Cats/Hybrid-Cat-breeds.php

    Wild cat/domestic cat mixes:
    Some hybrids that are wild cat/domestic cat mixes can be difficult to care for. They can have more “wild” personalities depending on their backgrounds. Some of these cats don’t get along easily with other cats. They also might not eat commercially prepared cat food. and/or they make take a liking to ruining your furniture!

    These cats can also have behavioral problems not typical to most domestic cats, they can have digestive issues, and many cats and kittens are still abandoned today, even hybrids. Many people believe they should not be bred at all, and that creating hybrids in the first place is an irresponsible process.

    Individual states, counties, or cities my have restrictions or licensing requirements for keeping hybrid cat breeds. Be sure to check with the authorities in your area before obtaining a hybrid, especially those developed with wild cats.



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  • Dan Sep 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    When I click on the [SOURCE][ NY Times] buttons at the bottom of the OP, I get the article you linked.

    It certainly expands into a whole range of other examples of hybrids from species, which have previously been geographically in separated gene-pools.



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  • Oh, ok. I was used to the way they did it before, so I didn’t notice the source button. Now if feel dumb… Thanks for the heads up, though!



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  • This article addresses the fundamental difference between the understanding of species/sub-species/varieties/races as gene-pools, as compared with Darwin’s Victorian critics who were, “stickers of labels on individual specimens”.
    Those with a very superficial understanding of botany (etc) can easily misunderstand this distinction!
    A type specimen in a herbarium or botanic collection, is NOT a species! It should be a typical individual example of a species, but there is no guarantee that explorers or collectors, will see the whole geographical range of the gene-pool, before collecting such specimens.

    Families, tribes, genera, species etc. are simply internationally agreed human classification systems, so that when exchanging data, we know which organisms we are talking about!

    International Code of Nomenclature – for – algae, fungi, and plants
    http://www.iapt-taxon.org/nomen/main.php



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