The History of Coyotes & Wolves in the Northeastern US
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Canines have lived in the Northeastern US far longer than humans. Fossil records show evidence of a prehistoric coyote in the continental US; an animal believed likely to be the predecessor of modern-day wolves and coyotes.
This prehistoric coyote, Johnston’s Coyote (Canis lepophagus) or the Hare-Eating Wolf, lived as long ago as the Miocene epoch, and lived for roughly 8.5 million years. It is believed that Canis lepophagus ranged through most of North America, although fossil evidence so far has only been found in Texas, Florida, northern California, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, and Oklahoma.¹
By the time European colonists began to settle in North America, The eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) was the main species of wolf that lived up and down the eastern seaboard. Smaller than the gray wolf, Canis lupus which averages 80 – 120 lbs, the eastern wolf at 70 – 90 lbs is actually more closely related to the coyote (Canis latrans) than the gray wolf. Red wolves (Canis rufus) also lived in the eastern US, in and around the Smoky and Appalachian Mountains. See my article on the difference between eastern and grey wolves for more on these two species.
Europeans brought their fear and dislike of wolves over from Europe with them and by the turn of the 20th century wolves had been almost entirely extirpated from the lower 48 states. Small populations of grey wolves would eventually be discovered in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and thankfully they became protected by the Endangered Species act once it was enacted in 1973. Currently the eastern wolf is now only found in very limited numbers in southeastern Canada, mostly in and around the Algonquin Park.
Prior to European colonization, coyotes (Canis latrans) were mostly restricted to the desert southwest and mid-west of the continental US. A major factor in the restriction of their range was wolves. Grey and red wolves lived in and around coyote populations and they kept them in check. Keeping smaller predator populations in balance is only one of the many roles that large top-level predators play in an ecosystem.
With the extirpation of wolves there was no effective check on coyote populations and they started not just expanding their population size, but their range as well. Interestingly, although the presence of natural population control in the form of wolves was, and is, successful at reducing coyote populations, humans have been unable to equal that success. No human control effort has successfully reduced or removed coyote populations in the long-term. In fact, the opposite has often occurred – the more coyotes have been hunted and trapped, the more they’ve increased their numbers and range. Because of their diet and social structure flexibility, coyotes have proved that they can adapt to any setting.
Coyotes represent one of the most successful colonization stories of any animal in North America. In less than 70 years, they had spread to almost all habitats within the US and now they live just about everywhere imaginable (including your backyard).
So why are the coyotes in the northeastern US different from their western cousins? As coyotes migrated east across the continent, they encountered whatever remained of wolves in the east (grey, red and eastern) and some interbreeding occurred. In the northeast specifically, it is believed that coyotes bred mainly with eastern wolves. Enough, in fact, that now eastern coyotes have wolf DNA in them, and are visibly different from western coyotes. They outweigh their cousins by 20 – 30 lbs, have more wolf-like physical traits in many cases, and are working their way into the top predator role here in the northeast. Eastern coyotes are now being called coywolves to encompass their genetic differences from western coyotes. This name is still catching on, and the term coywolf and eastern coyote are still used interchangeably. For the record, eastern and western coyotes still share the same scientific name: Canis latrans, which means ‘barking dog.’ I fully anticipate eastern coyotes being classified as either a sub-species of, or different species from Canis latrans in the next 5 – 10 years, but it hasn’t happened quite yet.
To further confuse the issue, eastern wolves are breeding with grey wolves in Canada north and west of the Algonquin Park, and eastern wolves and eastern coyotes are breeding south of the part and just north of (and perhaps in) the northern forests of New England. It is possible, likely even, that in a few decades or less, the eastern wolf will be extinct, but with its DNA passed along to eastern coyotes and grey wolves.
And what of the eastern coyote? Will it be determined to be a sub-species of Canis latrans? Or will it eventually be classified as its own species? In their current form, eastern coyotes are not likely to be considered a sub-species of the eastern wolf as their coyote-to-wolf DNA ratio is pretty high. However, in southeastern Canada where both species reside, interbreeding continues between eastern coyotes and eastern wolves.
It’s possible that in the next several decades we’ll have an animal here that is neither truly wolf or truly coyote. I think it is yet to be determined what animal(s) will take the role of top-level predator in the northeastern US. We’re currently watching evolution in process as these animals try to adapt to the human-dominated landscapes around them, and time will tell who – or what – will prevail.
¹http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9860503/1/ (primary source still needed)
More eastern coyote information: