Education

Coyote Misconceptions

The recent coyote attack in Iredell county is unfortunate and sad. Someone lost a pet in a matter of seconds. Human fear and emotions are real and for good reason. The dog was likely attacked with no warning at all.

In situations like this, comments like, “What do we expect? We have built houses in their habitat” are not helpful. It also does no good to simply say, “If I see one, I am going to just shoot it!” or to argue whether or not you can actually shoot a coyote within city limits. These comments bring little comfort to the people who have seen coyotes in their neighborhoods and are frightened. What may actually help is understanding coyote behavior and knowing what the scientific literature says about this urban carnivore.

For the past 6 years, researchers at Mitchell Community College have surveyed areas around Statesville using motion-activated trail cameras. The following picture shows where coyotes have been observed (highlighted in yellow).

Figure 1. Statesville, NC coyote habitat. Diagram is based on data collected from Mitchell Community College Trail Camera Studies.

As you can see, if there is a green patch within city limits, these animals can be successful. Individual coyotes or pairs can typically have smaller home ranges in urban environments because resources (i.e. food) are greater. Below, we have attempted to provide answers to some coyote questions by compiling data from scientific articles. We have also used some of our own camera trap data from Statesville.

1) Have coyotes just recently learned to live with people? Nope.

In a recent news article, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist was quoted as saying coyotes are “getting used to people.” This makes it sound like the co-existence between coyotes and humans is relatively recent. It’s not. Coyotes have never been solely wilderness creatures. For the 15,000 years since humans have inhabited North America, coyotes have been living alongside us (Flores 2016). Besides, we do not ever want coyotes to get used to us to the point where they feel comfortable.

2) Are coyotes “non-native” and “invasive”? It depends on how you define “non-native.” As far as invasive goes, not by a long shot.

It is probably accurate to say that coyotes are the most persecuted animal in North America, with 500,000 of them killed every year (Flores 2016). What makes them different than any other urban animal is that they are deemed a “problem” just because of their presence. By most accounts, coyotes are described as “non-native” and “invasive.” Those are two words that may not be suitable in this case.  In 2008, Iredell County Animal Services and Control sent out this publication. It states that at one point in the past, foxes were in so much demand for hunting that someone transported coyotes from Virginia into Iredell County to replace them. Hurricane Hugo, which came through the county in 1989, supposedly demolished the coyote pens, and they all escaped into the wild. Judging by how fast coyotes have spread into other counties throughout North Carolina, it is unclear whether this single event helped coyotes spread into the area faster than they normally would have. Even though coyotes may not have always inhabited North Carolina, red wolves once did. Since recent genetic research has shown that 80% of the red wolf genome is similar to coyotes, you could make an argument that coyotes (their genes, anyway) are native (VonHoldt 2011).

3) Are coyotes beneficial to urban ecosystems? Yes.

As is the case in Statesville, coyotes are the top predator in most urban ecosystems. Crooks and Soule (1999) showed that coyotes regulate a trophic cascade mechanism within fragmented landscapes. In the absence of coyotes, mesopredator (like raccoons or cats) populations increase. When mesopredators increase, songbirds tend to decrease, so you could make the argument that coyotes benefit native songbirds. Coyotes can also influence foxes, cats, raccoons, and skunks through direct competition. They may even influence behavior in domestic cats in urban environments (Kays et al. 2015). At our urban green patch sites, we did not catch any domestic cats. However, at our backyard sites over the same period of time, we had 22 independent captures of cats. So, maybe cats know where to go and where not to go. Through direct predation, coyotes do regulate rodent, rabbit, and in some areas, deer populations. For example, look at both Figures 2 and 3.  Coyote and rabbit activity overlap is higher in Statesville green spaces (Figure 2) than in backyards (Figure 3). You will also notice that rabbit activity peaks soon after midnight in backyards where coyotes are less dense (Figure 3). In Statesville green patches, rabbit activity peaks a little before 6 a.m. and right after 6 p.m. Are coyotes changing the behavior of rabbits in urban environments?

Figure 2. Coyote and rabbit activity overlap in urban green patches.

Figure 3. Coyote and rabbit activity overlap in urban backyards.

4) Do coyotes pose a danger to pets? Obviously, yes, but conflicts are rare.

Occasionally, coyotes do kill pets, but it is hardly a common occurrence. Contrary to popular belief, coyotes do not simply eat garbage and harass pets. It’s not the dumpsters or the small cats that attract coyotes to urban areas. Coyotes are top-level carnivores here in Statesville, and they are actively engaged as predators. Most conflicts with pets are because coyotes view small dogs and cats as competitors, not as food. In fact, this competitive response is similar to the response that coyotes show towards smaller foxes. Coyotes in urban ecosystems do not depend on pets as food (Gehrt 2007).  If they did, we would not have any pets left. In most studies, cats only make up 1-2% or less of the diet of urban coyotes (MacCracken 1982, McClure et al. 1995, and Bollin-Booth 2007). Our studies have shown that coyotes prefer cottontails in Statesville.

5) Are coyotes dangerous to humans in urban environments? Typically, not at all.

Coyotes have been documented attacking people. In 1981, a small child died from a coyote attack (Howell 1982). In 2009, White and Gehrt classified 142 U.S. and Canadian coyote attack reports. They categorized the attacks as follows:

Predatory- 37%

Investigative- 22%

Pet related- 6%

Defensive- 4%

Rabid- 7%

Like the recent attack in Statesville, most of the attacks occurred during pup-rearing season (May-July). “Problem” coyotes seem to be those that have become habituated to humans. Most urban coyotes avoid humans by shifting to more nocturnal activities. Our data certainly indicate this. Over 126 days, we collected 56 independent coyote captures on our cameras within city limits. Our data show that coyotes within city limits are, on average, 68% nocturnal. Four capture sites in one particular area showed that coyotes were 89% nocturnal.

Habituation could be the result of intentional or unintentional feeding of wildlife or avoiding them when they are seen. To successfully live with these predators, it is always best to yell and scream at them if you see them in your neighborhood. Make sure they stay wild, but also make sure they stay nervous.

6)  Are coyotes frequently reported as rabid wildlife species? Nope.

Rabies is a common fear among those of us that live in the city. The Center for Disease Control reports that raccoons account for most of the rabies outbreaks in the U.S., followed by bats, skunks, and foxes. Unlike raccoons, the coyote-strain rabies (except for a tiny population in South Texas) has not been an issue in the U.S (Clark and Wilson 1995). However, raccoon-strain rabies or raccoon rabies virus (RRV) can spillover into coyote populations. This has happened only occasionally (Wang 2010).

7) Can you ever get rid of all the coyotes? It doesn’t look like it.

If a pest-control company tells you they can take care of the “problem” and eliminate coyotes, they can’t (at least not permanently). Most predators are either solitary (mountain lions) or social (gray wolves), but not both. Coyotes, however, can be both. They can also catch a variety of prey, from small mice to deer. These are just some of the characteristics that allow them to live just about anywhere. Also, coyotes seem to be somewhat immune to exploitation. Knowlton et al. (1999) showed that unexploited coyote populations tend to have older age structure, high adult survival rates, and low reproductive rates. However, in highly exploited populations, coyotes are characterized by younger age structures, lower adult survival rates, and increased percentages of yearlings reproducing, and increased liter sizes. What can you do? Removal programs that target problem coyotes on an individually basis may be more cost-effective. It is important to remember how you define “problem”. Not all individual coyotes are problems just because of their presence.

 

References

Bollin-Booth, H. A. 2007. Diet analysis of the coyote (Canis Latrans) in metropolitanpark systems of northeast Ohio. Master’s thesis. Cleveland State University, Ohio.

Crooks, K. R., and M. E. Soule. 1999. Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system. Nature, 400: 563-566.

Flores, D. 2016. Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Basic Books: New York, NY.

Gehrt, S. D. 2007. Biology of coyotes in urban landscapes. Pages 303-311 in D. L. Nolte, W.M. Arjo, and D. H. Stalman, eds. Proceedings of the 12th Wildlife Damage Management Conference. Corpus Christi, TX.

Howell, R. G. 1982. The urban coyote problem in Los Angelos County. Pages 21-23 in R. E. Marsh, ed Proceedings of the tenth Vertebrate Pest Conference. University of California, Davis.

Kays, R. et al. 2015. Cats are rare where coyotes roam. Journal of Mammalogy, 96: 981-987.

Knowlton, F. F., E. M. Gese, and M. M. Jaeger. 1999. Coyote depradation control: An interface between biology and management. Journal of Range Management, 52: 398-412.

MacCracken, J. G. 1982. Coyote foods in a Southern California suberb. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 10: 280-281.

McClure, M. F. et al. 1995. Diets of coyotes near the boundary of Saguaro national monument and Tucson, Arizona. Southwestern Naturalist, 40: 101-104.

VonHoldt, B. M. et al. 2011. A Genome-Wide Perspective on the Evolutionary History of Enigmatic Wolf-Like Canids. Genome Research, 8: 1294-1305.

Wang, X. et al. 2010. Aggression and Rabid Coyotes, Massachusetts, USA. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 16: 357-369.

White, L. A., & Gehrt, S. D. 2009. Coyote Attacks on Humans in the United States and Canada. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 14(6), 419–432. http://doi.org/10.1080/10871200903055326

 

Suggested Readings

Bekoff, M. 1977. Canis latrans. Mammal Species, 79:1-9.

Gehrt, S. D., Wilson, E. C., Brown, J. L., & Anchor, C. 2013. Population Ecology of Free-Roaming Cats and Interference Competition by Coyotes in Urban Parks. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e75718–11. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0075718

Gehrt, S. D., C. Anchor, and L. A. White. 2009. Home range and landscape use of coyotes in a major metropolitan landscape: Coexistence or conflict? Journal of Mammalogy, 90: 1045-1057.

Gehrt, S. D., & Prange, S. 2006. Interference competition between coyotes and raccoons: a test of the mesopredator release hypothesis. Behavioral Ecology, 18(1), 204–214. http://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arl075

Heinrich, R.E., Strait, S.G., and Houde, P. 2008. Earliest Eocene Miacidae (Mammalia: Carnivora) from northwestern Wyoming. Journal of Paleontology, 82: 154–162.

Kays, R., Curtis, A., and Kirchman, J. 2010. Rapid adaptive evolution of northeastern coyotes via hybridization with wolves. Biology Letters, 6:89-93.

Kilgo, J., Ray, S., Vukovich, M., Goode, M., and Ruth, C. 2012. Wildlife Management, 76:1420-1430.

Meachen, J., Janowicz, A., Avery, J., and Sandleir, R. 2014. Ecological Changes in Coyotes (Canis latrans) in Response to the Ice Age Megafaunal Extinctions. PLoS ONE 9(12): e116041. doi:10. 1371/journal.pone.0116041

Meachen, J. and Samuels, J. 2012. Evolution in coyotes (Canis latrans) megafaunal extinctions. PNAS, 109: 4194-4196.

Mech, L. D. 1974. Canis lupus. Mammal Species, 37:1-6.

Newsome, S. D., Garbe, H. M., Wilson, E. C., & Gehrt, S. D. 2015. Individual variation in anthropogenic resource use in an urban carnivore. Oecologia, 178(1), 115–128. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3205-2

Tallian, A., Smith, D. W., Stahler, D. R., Metz, M. C., Wallen, R. L., Geremia, C., et al. 2017. Predator foraging response to a resurgent dangerous prey. Functional Ecology, 96, 1151–12. http://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12866

 

Laying the Foundation

By the late 18th century, scientists knew very precisely the dimensions of the Earth and its distance from the sun and planets. You might think that determining the age of the Earth would be relatively straightforward. However, humans would split the atom and invent television, nylon, and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet. Why? One reason is simply because no one was interested in geology. James Hutton, who is given credit for creating the science of geology in 1795, wrote about the slow processes that shaped Earth. His landmark writing did little good in advancing geology because it was so boring no one could understand it. Hutton did, in fact, ask one important question:

Why are ancient clamshells and other marine fossils so often found on mountaintops?

Charles Darwin asked this same question after he noticed marine fossils in the Andes Mountains of South America.

Yellowstone National Park is an uphill climb in all directions. It actually sits on a plateau with an average elevation around 8,000 feet above sea level. Why is this piece of land pushed upwards? This answer may help us answer Hutton’s question.

What’s the connection?

Yellowstone map from Google Earth

Project Yellowstone: A Summer Enrichment Program

In 2002, an old boar grizzly meandered across the road. Not just any grizzly. A wild grizzly. Not just any place. Yellowstone National Park.

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Several years later, an idea hatched. Yellowstone could and should be used as an outdoor classroom for students. Students need a place where they can learn biological concepts by 1) seeing biology in action and 2) actually doing science. We need a place to learn experientially and where phones don’t work. Nature matters. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) offers countless opportunities for learning and exploring biology. This diverse ecosystem, located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, has everything to explore from unique geology to predator/prey dynamics.

After conversations with very intelligent people and generous financial support from the community, we were ready to offer a program to high school students. “Project Yellowstone” was created with a mission to make science relevant, allow students the opportunity to be scientists, and stimulate conservation through appreciation.

2009 group

Nine students from Statesville High School traveled in 2009 on full scholarships. The students completed inquiry-based research projects, observed large megafauna such as bears, wolves, and moose, and hiked many of the trails. They explored the vegetation, the physical formations of the land, and the geothermal features. In 2010, nine more high school scholarship students participated in this program. The leadership team during those first two years, which included Officer Chris Bowen (Statesville Police Department), Danny Collins (Statesville Middle School), and Dr. Nelson Cooper (East Carolina University), played a critical role in creating and establishing the structure of the program.

The program expanded in 2011 and 2012 to include students from Mitchell Community College in addition to the high school students. Adults from the community also participated during these years, which added an element of inter-generational learning. Men like Tracy Snider, Harry Efird, Earl Spencer, John Ervin, Dr. John Karriker, and the aforementioned Dr. Nelson Cooper stepped up to served as mentors to the students as they completed research projects in the park. Bill Day also came along in 2011 and has not missed a trip since. His vast knowledge and ability to spot wildlife is invaluable.

Mitchell Community College’s Continuing Education division started offering this program in 2014. The trip, which still includes students, is currently offered to any one in the community. Having participants of all ages (there’s that concept of inter-generational learning again) is vital to the success of this program.

Here are some of the great memories I have from the past seven years of this program, and also some reasons why YOU should register to go with us.

Terrace walks
Hiking and exploring the terraces with experts like Ranger Beth Taylor.

Vistas
Trout Lake, Grand Prismatic, the Lamar Valley, and the Beartooths are just some of the areas that will take your breath away. Look in any direction, and have your camera ready.

Wildlife
During our first full day in 2009, Darius spotted our first bighorn ram, Sam spotted our first black bear, and Paul found the first grizzly.

One evening as we were watching wolves near the Druid den site, Rick M. let Paul, Devin, and Craig use the telemetry equipment to confirm that the alpha female was at the den. After about an hour of watching, the wolves across the road started howling. Soon after, we could hear the pups from the den answer with howls of their own. Devin, wide-eyed from the experience, turned and commented, “This is what I have been waiting for!”

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Paul listening for signal

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Craig “swiping” the area

That was just the beginning. Here are some other wildlife highlights:

Being intercepted by a bull elk at Wraith Falls
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Mountain goats

Hiking up the Yellowstone Picnic Trail Ridge

Coyotes chasing Lamar pack yearlings

Seeing a badger and a fox on the same morning hike

Fox

Otter catching a trout (and maybe a human catching a trout with his bare hands)

Otter with trout

Seeing 2 grizzlies, 3 wolves (including 911M), and 2 bald eagles in the valley (listen closely for Jane’s “bear” joke)

911M, Junction Butte alpha male, crossing the road right in front of us and howling

Wolf 911M

Watching a grizzly at Blacktail Lakes

As great as Yellowstone is, it’s the people that form the foundation of this program.  Usually, we run into old friends like Mike and Melissa from NC. Over the years, we have also met new friends like wolf watchers Dave, Andy, and Missy. Then, there are friends who generously share their time and knowledge with us. Finally, all the enthusiastic participants that make this trip worthwhile. Here are some highlights:

Wolf stories with Rick
We have observed “famous” wolves like 302M, 06, 754M, and 755M. We have seen pups fumbling around. We have also seen wolves hunting. However, one of the most informative things we have done is listened to Rick fill in the blanks.

Hikes with Dan
Dan Hartman has been so generous over the years as he has let us peer into the life of a wildlife photographer and naturalist. We have searched Aspen groves, come across a napping black bear, almost stepped on a sandhill crane chick, and found three great-grey owl chicks with their mom. We have also observed a sneaky pine marten at his cabin.

Traveling around the park with Nathan
Nathan, a biologist and wildlife guide, is a walking encyclopedia of all things Yellowstone. He grew up in Gardiner, MT, so his familiarity with the history of the park makes his guiding services rich and dynamic. We have hiked up Mount Washburn with Nathan and discussed grizzly bear behavior and management. We have also toured the Lamar Valley with him and observed wolves, eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, osprey, and bears.

Participants
Experiencing Yellowstone with participants has, and will continue to be, the best part of the program. Here are some group memories (some even made history).

Here’s the first time an iPad was used to teach an expert topic. Coop used it on the slopes of Mount Washburn in the snow. Congratulations, Dr. Cooper!

iPadTech
Danny and Jim teach the group about certain topics. This trip is special because we learn from each other.
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We’ve even had a fire chief teach about the lodgepole pine and fire ecology!

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We have had some pretty rowdy “How long can you leave your feet in cold water?” competitions.
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Come be a part of this program. You’ll observe nature, discuss important topics, learn lots of biology, make memories, and build relationships.

 

*For more information about this trip and learn how you can become involved, please visit Project Yellowstone. If you would like to support this program in the form of providing scholarships to students. please click here and designate “Project Yellowstone.”

Are Science Fairs fair?

What’s the ‘Why?” behind elementary and middle school science fairs? Do these projects really inspire students to become or even think like scientists? Do they do more harm than good? 

These questions are certainly not new. A recent article by Carl Zimmer stimulated lots of discussion about science fairs and whether they need to be changed in some way to just simply eliminated. Maybe there are better ways to engage students, especially minority students, in the sciences.

Science Fair by Rich Bowen, Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbowen/2261951504

Science Fair
by Rich Bowen, Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbowen/2261951504

Requiring students to construct a science fair project can have advantages. Students have the opportunity to see a project through to completion. They have the chance to design an experiment and test a hypothesis. They even have the chance to fail, which possibly is the greatest benefit. All these can be accomplished if the projects are done right.

However, it seems that more often than not, these project are not done right and actually create achievement gaps. Kids, especially at the elementary and middle school level, who do really well and win ribbons, typically have parents who can devote a lot of time and energy into helping their kids (if not doing the entire project). If this is the case, mandatory science projects are just posing as punishment for students who don’t have the resources.

The irony is these are very students we are trying to attract to the fields of science. How do you convince students that science is fun when the only experience they have is putting together a trifold board with the “correct” steps labeled in bold (Problem, Hypothesis, Methods, Data, Analysis, Conclusion) in the proper order? Don’t even try to mix up the order because everybody knows you have to do science in an orderly manner. Are we setting students up to fail? Is there a way to level the playing field?

Besides making science fairs better, two ideas come to mind. First of all, maybe schools could expand science programs so that students are DOING science all throughout the year or semester. These mini-projects could be curiosity-driven. Let’s face it, students need to fall in love with the natural world before they get acquainted to rigorous scientific testing. The best science comes from curiosity. This could be as simple as taking a class outside and taking an inventory of species on campus. Another example would be performing certain behavior activities with organisms (i.e. termites following ink trails). Or, it could be as simple as telling the students a story about a certain species and having them look up really cool facts. When students are allowed to have ownership, learning increases.

Secondly, it would be beneficial if we as scientists would become more involved in visiting classrooms instead of just showing up once a year to judge a science fair. What if we went into a classroom and helped run one of these smaller experiments? What if we trained our college students to mentor elementary school students?

I am not sure what else would work, but it does seem there needs to be changes. Any ideas?

Tag! You’re It!

For American pronghorn, play begins early in life. A young pronghorn will reach its peak play at about 4 weeks of age. Playtime includes a heavy dose of running. For pronghorns, running actually means sprinting. Running and playing as a fawn, however, come with risks. Play represents around 20% of total energy expenditure in fawns if you exclude growth and resting metabolic rate (Byers 1997). This type of energy expenditure could leave the fawns vulnerable to predation. So, why do they often sprint, leap, and twist during playtime if it could leave them exposed? The answer seems rather obvious. Fawns sprint because it is great practice for their adult lives. As adults, pronghorns are the fastest land mammals in North America, topping speeds of 55 mph or more. They have the ability to easily out run their predators. They are not sedentary animals. They cannot afford to not move. Moving is a good thing. Learning to run during playtime is probably just a form of “motor training” (Bekoff and Byers 1981). Pronghorn are made to run.

We, as humans, don’t have to worry about being chased by large predators, but some biologists have made the case that we, too, are made to run. Bernd Heinrich argues this very point in his book, Why We Run. Heinrich takes a natural history approach by comparing running and moving in multiple species across the biological spectrum. His central point is that we were once forced to be continually active to find food and survive, and because of this we never had the chance to be idle for prolonged periods of time. Now, we are often idle for long periods of time. We don’t explore the wilderness. We don’t go for walks. We don’t run. We are content just to sit inside and watch the television or play video games or stare at a Facebook feed.

Our bodies are designed in such a way that we store excess calories as fat in preparation for those times when we may have little food to eat. Since most Americans don’t really experience times of little food, this excess fat has consequences. Periods of idleness can result in obesity. Heinrich also makes the case that a prolonged sedentary lifestyle has negative consequences on our bones. If bones don’t receive the normal daily stress that comes from moving and running, they will become weak (osteoporosis). Think about astronauts who live in the zero-gravity environment of space for a period of time. Their bones become weak rapidly. Like pronghorn, we weren’t made to be sedentary. We were made to run.

Can you name the #1 outdoor game for kids between the ages of 3-10? I don’t have any confirmation, but I believe it is “tag”. Why do children (and lots of adults) love this game? We love this game because it’s easy, there is no equipment to purchase, you can play with as little as 2 people, it can be played just about any where and it’s fun. There are also definite benefits. It’s a great way to meet new friends, it improves critical thinking skills (strategy involved), it improves speed and agility, and it’s great exercise.

Yet, children are told not to run in the house (they might knock something over), not to run in the school hallway (it’s disorderly), not to run on the sidewalk (they might skin their knees). In some cases, it seems, kids aren’t even allowed to run outside during recess for fear of running into another kid or stepping in a hole. Some are even threatened with punishment if they are caught running.

We were made to run, but we often find ourselves in situations where we can’t.

 


Beckon, M. And J. A. Byers. 1981. A critical reanalysis of the ontogeny and phylogeny of mammalian social and locomotor play: An ethological hornet’s nest. In Behavioral development: The Bielefeld interdisciplinary project, ed. K. Immelmann, G. Barlow, M. Main, and L. Petrinovich, 296-337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Byers, J. A. 1997. American Pronghorn: Social Adaptations and the Ghosts of Predators Past. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.