Maine’s coyotes are destined to become a bigger, bolder, more aggressive wolf-like animal, and in time will pose an even greater threat to the state’s white-tailed deer population.
The Eastern coyote has long been recognized by state biologists as a coyote-wolf hybrid, first documented in Maine in the early 1900s. But Roland Kays, a leading researcher of coyote DNA at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said the Eastern coyote found in Maine is becoming more “wolfy” as natural selection favors the dominant wolf genes that make it a larger, more effective predator than its Western counterpart.
“They will continue to get bigger,” Kays said. “They have more wolf genes than the Western coyote. From an evolution point of view, it’s helping the animal survive better. Those (wolf) genes that make it larger are being passed on. I see no reason that will change.”
The implications could be significant in Maine, where deer hunting is a popular recreational activity and contributes to the state’s economy.
Kays said the Eastern coyote has about 8 percent wolf DNA – and that percentage will increase over time. He cautions that the evolutionary process is not rapid, and that it could take another century for the Eastern coyote to look much different than it does today. But already, the coyote is considered a threat to the most vulnerable deer, and hunters offer anecdotal evidence that coyotes can take down even large, healthy deer.
Coyotes are not native to Maine, having arrived from the Western U.S. a century ago. Kays said the hybridization of coyotes and wolves occurred as coyotes migrated east across Canada and the Great Lakes region. Coyotes bred with wolves, resulting in the Eastern coyote, which is as much as 20 pounds heavier than coyotes found in the West. The Eastern coyote has a bigger skull and, more importantly, a wider jaw.
The Western coyote is generally between 20 to 25 pounds, while Eastern coyotes weigh between 30 to 40 pounds. Some have been documented in Maine at 50 pounds.
“Genetic evidence suggests it happened when the wolf population in the Great Lakes was at its lowest point when they were heavily persecuted. So basically some wolf female came into heat and couldn’t find a wolf so bred with the next best thing: a coyote,” Kays said.
“The skull is bigger and especially wider, and what’s interesting about that is that it gives them more room in their jaw muscles. They kill with their mouth so they can take down larger prey.”