National Geographic News
Coyote picture: A coyote in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

A coyote is seen in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park in June.

Photograph by Elijah Goodwin, Whimbrel Nature Photography

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published November 7, 2011

Hybrid offspring of coyotes and wolves have spread south along the eastern seaboard, a new DNA study confirms.

Scientists already knew that some coyotes, which have been gradually expanding their range eastward, mated with wolves in the Great Lakes (map) region. The pairings created viable hybrid offspring—identified by their DNA and skulls—that have been found in mid-Atlantic states such as New York and Pennsylvania.

Now, new DNA analysis of coyote poop shows for the first time that some coyotes in the state of Virginia are also part wolf. Scientists think these animals are coyote-wolf hybrids that traveled south from New England along the Appalachian Mountains.

The study also identified another coyote migration route moving through the southern states.

"You have a situation where you have these two waves of coyotes coming into the mid-Atlantic, a terminus for coyote colonization," said study leader Christine Bozarth, a former research fellow at the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Northern Virginia in particular seems to be a convergence point for coyote migrations, Bozarth said—and the animals' numbers are increasing there, especially in suburban areas where food is more plentiful.

(See "Coyotes Now at Home in Eastern U.S.")

Versatile Coyote Already Widespread

Coyotes are originally residents of middle America, particularly between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.

By the end of the 20th century, the versatile animal—which can eat almost anything, from shoe leather to fruit—had spread to nearly every corner of the U.S., even New York City.

The coyote is "one of the animals that will be left at the end, like the cockroaches, raccoons, and rabbits," Bozarth said.

For the new study, Bozarth and colleagues collected coyote scat samples in northern Virginia and extracted DNA. The team then compared the coyote DNA with that of representatives of every canid species found in eastern North America. (Get a genetics overview.)

The study, published October 17 in the Journal of Mammalogy, found evidence that Virginia coyotes mated with Great Lakes wolves but not with the rare red wolf, which is hanging on in just a few isolated spots in the U.S. South.

That's "good news for the red wolf," whose survival is already threatened by inbreeding, which reduces the species' genetic diversity, Bozarth noted.

Hybrid Coyotes Taking Down Deer?

For now, it's impossible to say how "wolfy" the newly identified coyote-wolf hybrids really are, Bozarth added—just that "at some point down the line, a coyote mated with a Great Lakes wolf-even generations ago."

Scientists have not yet studied the behaviors of the Virginian hybrids to see if they're killing bigger wildlife or otherwise changing the ecosystem, Bozarth added.

But other East Coast hybrids seen alive or identified by their remains are noticeably larger, with more wolf-like skulls, jaws, and teeth, Bozarth noted. (See pictures of new hybrid species appearing in the warming Arctic.)

Given this, coyote-wolf hybrids "should be able to do things like take down deer, which a little, scrappy Great Plains wily coyote would not be able to do on its own," Bozarth said.

Indeed, the research highights "just how successful and adapted these hybrids are to the eastern forests," said Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum in Albany.

For instance, Kays's research on the previously known eastern hybrids has shown that a third of their diet is deer—a much higher proportion than in western states.

Coyotes in Mid-Atlantic "Here to Stay"

Jonathan Way, a wildlife biologist and head of the Massachusetts-based education group Eastern Coyote Research, called the new paper "timely."

Coyotes coming from the west are moving not only through the Great Lakes but also south of the region, through Ohio. But until now, it was unknown how that southern route of colonization was influencing coyotes in the mid-Atlantic region, Way said by email.

According to Way, these two fronts of coyote expansion have probably made the Virginia animals "hybrids of a hybrid."

That's because the Virginia hybrids are most likely a combination of northeastern coyote-wolf hybrids, which are slightly bigger and more wolf-like, and nonhybrid coyotes coming through Ohio.

"The results of the paper are clear and important, and confirm that mid-Atlantic coyotes have DNA from [Northeast] animals ... and western coyotes," Way said.

Whatever their exact genetic makeup, one thing is clear, study author Bozarth emphasized: Coyotes and coyote-wolf hybrids in the mid-Atlantic are "absolutely established—they're here to stay."

gra gor
gra gor

Coyote/ wolf hybrids eat deer.  That's a good thing right?  I heard the east is overrun with deer.  Sounds like a win / win situation.  Don't forget it.

E Meredith
E Meredith

Don't be silly, Ginger. If you love wildlife do some homework. You will learn that coyotes who are left alone usually breed a single litter a year - ONE litter, fed and protected by their mother and all her sisters. Yet when these idiots (including many so-called pest control types) start killing that extended group of content sisters all will breed, resulting in a much bigger leap in coyote numbers than previously projected. If you like coyotes, leave them alone. If you really dislike them, really leave them alone. That strategy will do less to spread more coyotes than the one that brought these guys east to begin with - persecution by man.

Ginger Sadler
Ginger Sadler

I have to wonder about what I saw this morning, while heading off to work and school. It wasn't a pleasant encounter at all. I had to run back into my house and left my 6 year old in the car to do so. Came back out and in between me and my car was a huge , coyote/wolf/hybrid/ feral dog...Not sure I know we have coyotes in the area, they have been ravaging the cat population out where I live for a while. But this was biggest dang coyote I've even seen, especially locally (southwest va). And it had blue or light color eyes. It wasn't scared of me either didn't run when I yelled or made noise , in fact it was rather aggressive stood its ground and growled.  

The local animal shelter said that the coyotes are becoming less afraid of humans and they can set some traps or I can go ahead and kill it.

But I"m really hoping if it comes back around I can get a pic of it before having to kill it. I'm an animal lover by nature so killing something not for food, bothers me, but it is is to protect myself , pets and family I will have no option.

Bob Strong
Bob Strong

I had no idea that Coyotes and Wolves were breeding together. This could make a pest such as the Coyote much more dangerous. This would also cause a change in the current hunting cycle of Coyotes.

aaa aaa
aaa aaa

Who knew very different species (in some things) could do something so incredible

Charlene Theiss
Charlene Theiss

My husband and I saw two very large canine animals run across a state route in front of our SUV here in N E Ohio last night. My husband immediately exclaimed "wolves!", which was exactly what I was thinking, as they were so large. We have a lot of coyotes in this area, but these appeared much larger and better muscled. We also own a young husky, so have that to use as a comparison. Just was wondering if there was any possibility what we saw really were wolves....

Julie Parrish
Julie Parrish

Phil Carlson - this is what I was talking about last night. 

Very interesting.

Richard Fox
Richard Fox

Spending the winter in my plywood tent here in the VA mountains is very exciting EVERY night. The coyotes wake me up with their racket. Last night was the most hair raising when at 11pm I went out for the last time and they were within 100 feet. I could hear them breathing!  It was like a Hollywood Werewolf movie! . Yes, I moved as quick as I could, under the circumstances, getting back to my shelter.  

Matt Herriges
Matt Herriges

Coyotes do kill deer. The coyotes gang up on a deer, surround it and bite the back of the legs to immobilize it. I watched a pretty large whitetail doe get taken down in my back yard in Illinois.

gra gor
gra gor

@E Meredith They came for the deer as well.  Less hunting means more deer. 


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »