Anyone hoping to learn about "coywolves" — a hybrid wolf and coyote, with a bit of dog thrown in for good measure — is bound to come across the name Roland Kays. The wildlife professor at N.C. State University and lab director at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has studied the animals' evolutionary history and has been quoted in numerous stories on the hybrids, so he seems like the perfect person to talk to. That's why I was surprised when Kays asked me to read over an article he had written on the crossbreeds before we talked — the title of that article: "Yes, eastern coyotes are hybrids, but the 'coywolf' is not a thing."
While I had set out to write a simple story on coywolves, or woyotes as they are sometimes called, what I found was the truth is a bit more complicated than I thought — and humans' role in shaping the natural world around them is more than just a matter of deciding what to name these dynamic creatures.
Coywolves, or eastern coyotes as Kays recommends calling them, first emerged in the Great Lakes area around the late 1800s. Due to deforestation and the direct persecution of predators by hunters and government agencies, the wolf population was dangerously low. Left with the challenge of finding suitable mates, the animals were forced to look outside of their own species to breed. Learning to settle, this led to wolves co-mingling with coyotes, who about 50 years later began to breed with dogs as they spread into upstate New York. Recent genetic testing reveals that coyotes in the Northeast are about 8-25 percent wolf and around 10 percent dog. Coyotes in the South are a bit more pure-blooded, with about 10 percent wolf and dog genes thrown into the mix.
According to Kays, the problem with labelling these creatures as coywolves is there is "no single new genetic entity that should be considered a unique species." Researchers continue to find coyotes with varying degrees of DNA from other animals. While this has led to a few changes in the appearance of some coyotes, scientists aren't quite ready to name them as a new species just yet.
Possibly as a result of this inter-species breeding, eastern coyotes are larger than the western variety, with longer legs and bodies. Weighing around 35-45 pounds, these creatures can travel as far as 15 miles per day. In recent years, coyotes have been observed moving farther east into more urban environments such as New York City and even areas around Charleston. Currently, Sullivan's Island is employing traps in an attempt to manage its own coyote population after many residents reported missing pets believed to have fallen prey to these wily predators.
According to Kays, coyotes are still adapting to live in urban areas, but this trend will likely continue as they become better suited to surviving in cities heavily populated by humans.
With this increased visibility of coyotes along the East Coast, it wasn't long before the term "coywolf" began to grab headlines to the slight disdain of some researchers.
"Overall, I think it's great that people are interested in the story. Call it whatever you will, the fact is something really interesting is going on," says Kays. "The media is using this slightly inaccurate term to get more attention, but I am glad that people are paying attention, and they are realizing that evolution is something that is happening right underneath our noses. It's not just something that just happens in test tubes or something that happens over millions of years. It can happen over decades. ... Yeah, I wish you wouldn't call it a coywolf, but I don't get too prickly about it."
According to Kays, the problem with labelling eastern coyotes as an entirely new species is that evolution is still sorting things out. While new variations of coyote continue to pop up, these animals are still in the middle of a transition, and it could be a long time before a distinct new species emerges, if ever.
"One of the possibilities is that over time these hybrid genes kind of go away," says Kays. "If these animals that have these hybrid genes survive better, then those genes will stick around. If it makes no difference or if they survive worse, then those genes will eventually disappear."
What's important to remember is that humans play a much larger role in evolution than can be imagined. Whether it's a matter of our influence on the environment in which these animals live or simply deciding what to call them, our actions and understanding can have major effects on the future of wildlife. This impact has even led to the coining of a term "anthropocene," which has been used to describe our current geological period.
"You've heard of the Pleistocene and the Jurassic, these geologic stages of Earth. A lot of people are proposing that we have entered into a new geologic era on Earth called the Anthropocene, which is defined by humans having a major impact on life and the environment on Earth, ranging from being one of the primary forces that affects evolution at the moment on up to things like global warming being caused," says Kays. "Increasingly, we're realizing that humans are having an impact on Earth in all kinds of different, interesting ways — and sometimes scary ways."