On the morning of April 14, at approximately 6:30 am, a coyote was spotted in Bay Creek near Lot 7 in Burford Court, making its way towards Bay Creek Pkwy. This may seem surprising at first, but coyote sightings on the Eastern Shore have been increasing over the last few years. These coyotes however are more than likely wolf and possibly dog hybrids. Coyotes have been gradually expanding their range from the western part of the United States and have mated with wolves in the Great Lakes region. Coyotes mating with wolves or dogs have created a healthy, viable hybrid which is somewhat larger than their western counterparts. Unlike the somewhat solitary nature of western coyote, the eastern hybrids have occasionally been seen traveling in packs.
As was reported in Science Daily, a new report by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics in the Journal of Mammalogy used DNA from coyote scat (feces) to trace the route that led some coyotes to colonize in Northern Virginia. The researchers also confirmed that coyotes interbred with the native Great Lakes wolves. The study also showed that coyotes migrated eastward via two main routes — one that went through the northern United States, and one that went through the south. DNA samples indicate that Virginian coyotes were related to coyote populations in western New York and Pennsylvania. It appears the northern trekkers eventually encountered the Great Lakes wolves and interbred before converging again on the East Coast. They then gradually headed south along the Appalachian Mountains toward Virginia.
From Science Daily, “The Mid-Atlantic region is a particularly interesting place because it appears to mark a convergence in northern and southern waves of coyote expansion,” said Christine Bozarth, an SCBI research fellow and lead author on the paper. “I like to call it the Mid-Atlantic melting pot.”
The interbreeding is interesting for the coyote, but indicates trouble for the great wolf. Hybridization between canid species usually occurs when one species is rare. The wolves may have trouble finding mates and therefore breed instead with closely related species.
From Science Daily, “This does not mean that we have massive, wolf-like coyotes roaming around here in Virginia,” Bozarth said. “Coyotes with wolf ancestry have differently shaped jaws, which may allow them to fill different ecological niches. They tend to hunt small prey and scavenge large game, so hybrid coyotes might be helpful in controlling the overly abundant deer population.”
Researchers believe Northern Virginia is a migratory convergence point, where populations are increasing in suburban areas where food is more plentiful. The northern Virginia to Eastern Shore route may account for the increased sightings on the Eastern Shore, where the lower locales may also provide healthy habitat for coyote families.