A biologist’s encounter with a wild animal leads to the exploration of a species new to New York City.
In the heavily populated boroughs of New York City lives a hybrid animal that emerged in the early 20th century as industrialization and agricultural development in the American Northeast and Upper Midwest altered the environment. At that time, those regions were largely deforested and the government launched an aggressive campaign to exterminate wolves.
That’s when coyotes, which are smaller and competitively inferior to wolves, seized the opportunity to move eastward, expanding their historic range in the open grasslands of the Midwest and the deserts of the Southwest. When the coyotes encountered small pockets of remaining wolves around Canada’s Southern Ontario region, female coyotes began to interbreed with male wolves that were having trouble finding female mates within their own species.
Javier Monzón, assistant professor of biology at Seaver College, is a pioneer in the study of these wild, hybrid carnivores that some call “coywolves.” He first became interested in Northeastern coyotes after coming face to face with one just outside of New York City. He was hiking through the New Jersey Palisades when one unexpectedly jumped out of the bushes and ran towards him. With only three feet between them, the scientist and animal locked eyes for a brief moment before the coyote turned and ran off in the opposite direction. As Monzón recovered from the frightening encounter, he began to wonder about the coyote’s ecology since its habitat neighbored a prominent metropolis.
“Every healthy ecosystem needs a top predator,” Monzón explains. “Coyotes are actually filling in a niche that was left vacant from the extermination of wolves and cougars, which were there before the 19th century.”
Following the encounter, Monzón, who had previously studied pumas and jaguars due to a longtime fascination with mammalian carnivores, shifted the focus of his doctoral research to the hybridization and genetics of Northeastern coyotes. He first learned of the coywolf during this time and began to examine the rapid microevolutionary changes that occurred in this new type of animal.
His initial interests were to explore how many animals within the Northeast population were indeed hybrids and to determine the ancestry percentages of individuals within that population. By 2013, after genetically testing 437 Northeastern coyotes through a process similar to human ancestral testing, Monzón discovered that 100 percent of his sample were hybrids, with an average DNA makeup consisting of 65 percent coyote, 25 percent wolf, and 10 percent domestic dog.
“There are genetic markers that are specific to Western gray wolves, Eastern wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs,” says Monzón, who took a sampling of 63 of those markers and genotyped them in the sample of 437 coyotes to determine each one’s ancestry. He also found that coyotes living in areas populated with many deer tended to be more wolf-like genetically.
Now that these mysteries have been uncovered, Monzón is collaborating with other coyote biologists and a Pepperdine biology alumnus to write a synthesis of the body of knowledge of Northeastern coyotes, summarizing what is known about their genetics, morphology, paleontology, ecology, interactions with prey, and recent colonization of New York City.
“The last body of knowledge about Eastern coyotes that was synthesized was in 1995 and a lot has happened in the last 21 years, especially in genetics,” Monzón notes. “Eastern coyotes have evolved rapidly. They have been in the Northeast for only about 100 years and are so different than Western coyotes. They are also new to New York City, and it’s important that New Yorkers understand the animals that live in their backyards—especially this one, because it is a top predator.”
Monzón is also currently working with biologists from the National Park Service to collect coyote scat (droppings) throughout select areas in Los Angeles. He is teamed up with Rodney Honeycutt, professor of biology and divisional dean of the Natural Science Division, and two Seaver College students to investigate the genetic relationships of coyotes inhabiting various parks and cemeteries throughout Los Angeles. Monzón also hopes to help the National Park Service tag coyotes with GPS collars, which he thinks will reveal how these medium- sized carnivores are able to navigate the second largest metropolis in the United States.
“My hope is that, by gleaning insight from experienced biologists well-versed in animal GPS tagging, that I will pass along that knowledge to students who may make significant strides in this important research.”