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Millions of Dog-Coyote-Wolf Hybrids Now Roam Eastern U.S.

Science

A new species combining wolves, coyotes and dogs is evolving before scientists’ eyes in the eastern U.S.

Wolves faced with a diminishing number of potential mates are lowering their standards and mating with other, similar species, reported The Economist. The interbreeding began up to 200 years ago, as European settlers pushed into southern Ontario, clearing the wolf's habitat for farming and killing a large number of the wolf families who lived there. This also allowed coyotes to spread from the prairies, and the farmers brought dogs into the region.

Over time, wolves began mating with their new, genetically similar neighbors. The resulting offspring—which has been called the eastern coyote, or to some, the coywolf—now number in the millions, according to researchers at North Carolina State University.

Interspecies-bred animals are typically less vigorous than their parents, the Economist reported, if the offspring survive at all. That’s not the case with the wolf-coyote-dog hybrid, which has developed into a sum greater than the whole of its parts. At about 55 pounds, the hybrid animal is about twice as heavy as a standard coyote, and its larger jaws, faster legs and muscular body allows it to take down small deer and even hunt moose in packs in both open terrain and dense woodland.

An analysis of 437 hybrid animals found that coyote DNA dominates its genetic makeup, with about one-tenth of its DNA from dogs, usually larger dogs such as Doberman pinschers and German shepherds, and a quarter from wolves.

The animal’s cry starts out as a deep-pitched wolf howl that morphs into higher-pitched yipping, like a coyote.

The coywolf's dog DNA may carry an additional advantage. Some scientists think the hybrid animal is able to adapt to city life—which neither coyotes or wolves have managed to do—because its dog ancestry allows it to tolerate people and noise. Coywolves have spread into some of the nation’s largest cities, including New York, Boston and Washington, DC.

The interbreeding allows the animal to diversify its diet and eat discarded food, along with rodents and smaller mammals, including cats, and they have evolved to become nocturnal to avoid humans.

Some of the animals are also smart enough to learn to look both ways before crossing roads.

Not all researchers agree the coywolf is a distinct species, arguing that one species does not interbreed with another, although the hybrid’s existence raises the question of whether wolves and coyotes are distinct species in the first place.

But scientists who have studied the animal say the mixing of genes has been much faster, extensive and transformational than anyone had noticed until fairly recently.

“[This] amazing contemporary evolution story [is] happening right underneath our nose,” said Roland Kays, a researcher at North Carolina State.

Watch this report on coywolves posted online by THIRTEEN:

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