|The Northeastern Coyote
Copyright © 2015 Wildlife Technologies
Range: Eastern Canada and the US Northeast
These pictures may not be used
Northeastern coyotes are the largest coyotes in North America
Average weight for an adult female: 40 to 55 pounds
Average weight for an adult male: 40 to 80 pounds
N.B. coyotes may be wolf hybrid
|Copyright © 2015 Wildlife Technologies|
Wildlife genetics specialist at center of debate over species'
By PHILIP LEE -- N.B. Telegraph Journal
Is wolf blood running thick through the forests of New Brunswick?
A New Brunswick wildlife genetics specialist thinks that is indeed the case and he has drawn this province's population of coyotes, which are larger and more wolf-like than their diminutive western cousins, into the heart of a raging scientific debate over the evolutionary origin of Canadian wolves.
The debate has revolved around a population of about 200 wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, north of Toronto. For many years, the Algonquin wolf was considered to be a mutt, a hybrid of the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and coyote (Canis latrans).
However, recent genetic testing on Algonquin wolves has led scientists to suggest that the Algonquin wolves are in fact surviving members of the eastern Canadian wolf species (Canis lycaon), a cousin of the red wolf, which is on the endangered species list in the United States.
Paul Wilson, a 31-year-old New Brunswick man who runs the Wildlife and Forensic DNA Laboratory at Trent University, has become a central figure in this debate.
The evolutionary model that Mr. Wilson's laboratory has proposed suggests that the New Brunswick coyote, which began appearing here in large numbers in the 1970s, is not a pure coyote at all, but in fact a hybrid of the eastern Canadian wolf and western coyote.
When the animals first arrived in New Brunswick, there was a great deal of speculation about what kind of dog-like creatures they were because they were so much larger than western coyotes. One of the most popular theories of the day was that they were hybrids of coyotes and domestic dogs.
"Our genetic data suggests that they are hybrid coyote-wolves," Mr. Wilson said. "So the eastern coyote, by definition, according to our genetic data, has wolf genetic material moved into it."
Algonquin wolves grow to be 60 to 90 pounds and have a unique salt-and-pepper colouring with red markings behind the ears. New Brunswick coyotes average between 30 and 80 pounds, and some have shown distinctive red markings. New Brunswick coyotes can live on a diet that is 80 per cent deer, while its western cousins, which grow to be about 15 to 30 pounds, eat only small mammals.
"The New Brunswick coyote is actually filling a fairly functional role as a top-end predator, similar to a pure eastern wolf," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson's wolf research began with a request for some simple genetics testing from Dr. John Théberge, a University of Waterloo ecology professor, who with his wife Mary has been studying Algonquin wolves for more than a decade. They were convinced the Algonquin animal was a grey wolf-and-coyote hybrid.
"The genetic evidence started to point to the fact that that Algonquin animal was a very different wolf and was very closely related to the red wolf," Mr. Wilson said. "So we put forth a model that suggests this wolf actually evolved differently from the big grey wolf that you might see in the northern reaches of Canada."
His model proposes that one to two million years ago there was a common wolf ancestor in North America. Some of these wolves travelled to Europe over the land bridge and evolved there into the grey wolf. Others remained in North America and evolved into the red wolf or eastern Canadian wolf, which about 300,000 years ago spawned the coyote, which moved west. Also, about 300,000 years ago, the grey wolf returned to North America over the ice.
"Our wolf is more closely related to the coyote than it would be to the grey wolf, which would be one or two million years distinct from it," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson is now collecting several crucial historical samples to test his theory.
Last week, he obtained a cutting from a 1949 coyote hide in the New Brunswick Museum's collection. This animal predates the arrival of coyotes in New Brunswick by at least a couple of decades and may be a remnant eastern Canadian wolf or one of the first arrivals of coyote-and-wolf hybrids. Wolves were extirpated from New Brunswick in the 1800s.
Mr. Wilson has also collected a sample of a wolf-like animal from Maine killed in the 1860s that is now in the Harvard University collection. He has obtained another sample from the 1890s in New York, which would have predated the arrival of coyotes there.
Mr. Wilson has found coyote-like genetic material in the Algonquin wolves that is not found in pure coyotes. The DNA strongly suggests these animals shared a common ancestor about 300,000 years ago. Now he wants to confirm these genetic characteristics in samples that predate the arrival of coyotes.
If he can find the coyote-like genetic markers in these historical samples, this will confirm that there was a wolf that evolved in North America that is closely related to coyotes. Because these samples predate the arrival of coyotes, he will know that this genetic material is present because of a common evolution, not as a result of interbreeding.
"Looking at these historical samples is a direct test of whether this model is accurate," Mr. Wilson said.
He is also attempting to obtain DNA markers from Manitoba wolf teeth that date back 5,000 years. The western border for the eastern wolf may have extended into Manitoba and this ancient DNA, if it is not degraded, could provide a crucial piece of the puzzle.
His lab has collected a data bank of about 4,000 wolves and coyotes, including a couple of hundred samples from New Brunswick.
The wolf genetics work is an interesting academic exercise, but it is also important for the protection of these animals. If it is proven that the Algonquin wolf is a species distinct from the grey wolf, it needs to be protected.
Mr. Wilson believes eastern Canadian wolves survive better in a human disturbed ecosystem than do grey wolves. If these eastern wolves encounter human disturbance, they are less likely to disappear and instead begin to interbreed with coyotes.
"Once you get that coyote-and-wolf hybrid, it is a very adaptable animal," Mr. Wilson said. "That's why it's doing so well here in New Brunswick."
The Laurentide wolves, which live two hours north of Quebec and are geographically isolated, represent one of the few remaining eastern timber wolf populations that have not hybridized with coyotes.