You are out hiking one fine summer morning. You happen to look along the river bank and see a dog looking at you. Then you realize it is not a dog but a wolf or is it a coyote? Or a brush wolf? The animal vanishes as soon as it realizes that it has been spotted. Just what did you see?
If you were in the prairie or mountain provinces you have two choices: wolf or coyote. Coyotes have a much wider range out west than wolves and they are much smaller. Identification should be easy. But if you are in Southern Ontario (south of a line drawn from Sudbury to Petawawa) the choice is not so straightforward.
Coyotes invaded Ontario and Eastern Canada in a pincher movement. With the removal of the wolf from much of its range south of the boreal forest coyotes were quick to fill the gap. They entered from Manitoba and the Dakotas in the first half of 20th Century. They also invaded from the Eastern USA in the last half of that century.
When coyotes expanded their range our understanding of wolf biology was in its infancy. When I worked up in Algonquin Provincial Park in the 1960’s scientists “knew” the wolf we had there was the timber wolf. Turns out they were wrong. DNA studies in the 1990’s and the beginning of this century showed clearly that the Algonquin wolf was genetically different from the larger timber or grey wolf of the north. In fact, the Algonquin or Eastern wolf was more closely related genetically to the red wolf and the coyote. These species are about the same size of coyotes too.
The coyote linage is uniquely North American. The grey wolf evolved in Asia and did not enter into North America until about 100.000 years ago. The coyote family was by then a couple of million years old. In the 50’s and 60’s biologists assumed that the expanding coyote population was breeding with “wolves” since at that time they only knew of one species of wolf. We now have pretty good evidence that they were crossbreeding not with grey wolves but with the closely related Eastern wolf and the red wolf of the southern USA. (The red wolf was crossbred virtually out of existence and now exists in a few isolated pockets where it is protected from coyotes.)
While there is little (almost no) evidence that coyotes are even capable of crossbreeding with grey wolves there is abundant evidence of them breeding with the Eastern or Algonquin wolf. Indeed the problem is so pervasive that many biologists fear that the pure strain of this wolf species will soon cease to exist (particularly in Algonquin P.P.!).
The result is a larger race of coyote now called the Eastern coyote or brush wolf. It shows a wide range of colour than the western coyote. Unlike grey wolves, coyotes are a perfect size in that they can feed as individuals on small animals (grey wolves cannot really do this) or they can form packs and hunt larger prey.
So what you saw may be an emerging new species or it may be an extremely old species. If you saw it in Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland or the Maritimes just assume it was a brush wolf or an Eastern coyote. One and the same. (Don’t get me started on coy-dogs…that is another whole column!)
Note: A version of this article first appeared in Bob Izumi's Real Fishing Magazine in
Dave's column At the Water's Edge. It is used with the permission of editor.
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