Until not that terribly long ago, coyotes made their home almost exclusively in the western United States. But then as more people spread west, they cut down trees to make room for farms, creating ideal habitats for coyote expansion. To protect their livestock, these settlers killed predators like wolves and cougars, which also happened to be mortal enemies of the coyotes. Coyotes took advantage of the disappearance of their foes, broadening the focus of their prey.
These changes over the past century have allowed coyotes to dramatically expand their range across much of North and Central America, according to researchers who recently mapped the range and movement of the coyote using fossils, museum specimens and peer-reviewed studies. Coyotes have expanded by an estimated 40 percent since the 1950s and can now be found across most of the continent.
According to the study, published in the journal ZooKeys, coyotes are now found in every U.S. state and several Canadian provinces. They're also expanding their range in Central America. According to researchers, camera traps have spotted coyotes nearing the Darien Gap, a heavily forested region separating North and South America, suggesting coyotes may soon move into South America.
"The expansion of coyotes across the American continent offers an incredible experiment for assessing ecological questions about their roles as predators, and evolutionary questions related to their hybridization with dogs and wolves," lead author James Hody of North Carolina State University said in a statement.
"By collecting and mapping these museum data, we were able to correct old misconceptions of their original range, and more precisely map and date their recent expansions."
Urban coyote threats
A coyote strolls through a neighborhood in New Mexico. (Photo: Larry Lamsa [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Whether it's a suburban backyard or a city park, coyotes are becoming more prevalent in human-dominated settings. But are they seeking out this proximity or is it a forced cohabitation?
"Current research is dedicated to understanding coyote habitat selection within urban areas, in order to understand if coyotes benefit from human-associated developments (i.e. are synanthropic species) or if they are merely occurring in human-populated areas due to increased sprawl and fragmentation," writes the Urban Coyote Research Project.
"In urban areas, coyotes prefer wooded patches and shrubbery, which provides shelter to hide from people. Our research has found that within the urban matrix, coyotes will avoid residential, commercial, and industrial areas but will use any remaining habitat fragments, such as those found in parks and golf courses."
Coyotes have been known to threaten and attack household pets. In very rare occasions they have attacked humans. But we will continue to share our habitats with coyotes as their habitats continue to expand.
While animals like mountain lions, wolves and bears were nearly hunted to extinction through predator control programs, coyotes are much more resilient, coauthor Roland Kays, a research associate professor at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, told the Washington Post.
"Coyotes are the ultimate American survivor. They have endured persecution all over the place," he said. "They are sneaky enough. They eat whatever they can find — insects, smaller mammals, garbage."