They aren’t just earth dogs. These are Border terriers in Germany.
I am a coyote lover. No two ways about it. I have always been interested in wolves and dogs, but in the past couple of years, I’ve had encounters with Eastern coyotes. And they are every bit as fascinating. Western man has thrown every single weapon he could contrive at them, and all they have done is spread all over the continent.
So it was with great joy when I got a chance to read Dan Flores’s Coyote America. I had heard the author interviewed on Steven Rinella’s podcast a while back, and I was really fascinated about what he had to say about Pleistocene megafauna on the North American Great Plains.
I also knew he was writing a book on coyotes, and I wanted get his take on them.
I’ve just started reading the book. I really enjoy his discussion about Native American traditions with coyotes. I am a damned, no-good Easterner, so I know very little about those traditions.
But I do have a quibble. It’s a friendly quibble. In one part of the book he describes coyotes as being as genetically distinct from wolves as humans are from orangutans and that the two species split from a common ancestor some 3.2 million years ago. He uses a lot of the paleontological data from Xiaoming Wang, who is a great canid paleontologist, who posits that coyotes evolved from directly from Canis lepophagus and that they are wholly a North American lineage.
Now, this is paleontology, and it’s not exactly the best way to determine evolution relationships between very closely related canid species. The reason why is that canids have a tendency toward parallel evolution. For example, the bush dog of South America has dentition that is very much like the African wild dog and the dhole, and at one time, it was suggested that the bush dog was actually a species of dwarf dhole. We now know from genetic studies that it is actually a close relative the of the maned wolf, and it is well-nested in the South American canid clade.
It is definitely true that coyotes resemble African golden jackals, but similarities in appearance have led to error here. Molecular geneticist have recently found that African golden jackal is actually much more closely related to coyotes and wolves than it is to the Eurasian golden jackal. That means that two animals we thought were the same species actually turned out to be two.
And when it comes to the relationship between coyotes and wolves, molecular geneticists had long assumed that the two species split around 1 million years ago. In countless dog domestication articles, the molecular clock has been calibrated around a 1-million-year-old split between wolves and coyotes. I have always thought that was weird, because the paleontology studies suggested a much older divergence.
Well, a recent comparison of wolf and coyote genomes from across North America revealed that the actual separation time was something more like 50,000 years ago. That means the animals we’re calling coyotes now aren’t the same thing as those million-year-old fossils. Those animals are of evolutionary dead-ends that just happened to have a very similar morphology to a coyote in much the same way that African and Eurasian jackals do. Of course, we cannot get genetic data from such old fossils, but it could be that some of these dead-end canids might be more closely related to black-backed and side-striped jackals, which really did diverge from the rest of Canis a really long time ago. They are more divergent from the rest of Canis than the African wild dog and dhole are, and the dhole and African wild dog have their own genera.
If coyotes and wolves diverged only 50,000 years ago, then this raises an interesting taxonomic question. All extant wolf lineages diverged in the past 44,400-45,900 years, as a recent study comparing wolf genomes revealed. These means the genetic difference between a wolf and a coyote is not much more than the greatest genetic variance between wolves. (Generation time are roughly similar in both wolves and coyotes).
This means that the creatures we’re calling coyotes now actually derived from the Eurasian wolf. The reason this animal looks so much like a jackal isn’t because it represents a primitive North American Canis lineage, but because the larger, pack hunting wolf from Eurasia couldn’t live very well at middle latitudes in North America. At the time, dire wolves were occupying this niche. There were also dholes coming into North America, which means that the pack-hunting wolf of Eurasia really had some strong competition. That means that these wolves evolved more toward the generalist jackal body-type and ecological niche. They did so in parallel to the Eurasian and African jackals.
This is very similar to what happened to the first radiation of Eurasian lynx into North America. Eurasian lynx are pretty large, weighing as much as 70 pounds, but they found the mid-sized cat niche already locked up in North America. So they evolved into the smaller bobcat. It just happened millions of years before the wolves that became coyotes came into the continent.
The fact that wolves and coyotes are this closely related and have exchanged genes so much across the continent raises some important questions about what a coyote is. The comparative genome study on wolves and coyotes showed that the animals called the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, which Flores considers valid species in the book, are actually hybrids between wolves and coyotes. I’ve long been a skeptic of the red and Eastern wolf paradigm, but this study actually makes me question coyotes.
One could actually argue that coyotes are a subspecies of wolf. This is a controversial thing to say, but it was once controversial to say that dogs and wolves were the same species– and now there is growing acceptance (at least among scientists) of this fact.
It is certainly true that all wolves, jackals, African wild dogs, and dholes do descend from a coyote-like North American ancestor. But to assume that coyotes are directly derived from this ancestor is a major error, and one that has been falsified in the molecular studies.
If my interpretation of the genetic studies is correct, the coyote should be called the “thriving wolf.” Unlike the bigger ones, it was able to survive all that we threw at it. The more we persecuted it, the greater its numbers became, as did the vastness of its range. It is an adaptable, resourceful survivor, and that makes it the perfect “American avatar” to use Flores’s construction.
So that is what a coyote is. It is the wolf that thrives.
I never have taken a liking to the term ‘beast’ or what I sense is its social nuance. Its implication is negative and connotations derogatory. To me it means true to ones nature; it is base, fundamental and instinctive. From my research the etymology of the word remains unclear however, the root of ‘animal’ is Latin meaning breath or spirit. I suppose the distinction between the two words ‘beast’ and ‘animal’ is essence versus being but I’ll leave that one up to the scholarly sorts who have a ton of disposable time.
To me and for now, they are synonymous. I am reminded of a story I once read of a boy who, all alone and lost in the woods, becomes a beast to protect himself from the perils of the night and fight his way to safety. But upon emerging from the forest unscathed the boy learns that he cannot unbecome.
So what’s the point of all of this? What’s the purpose? Somewhere along my journey I stopped asking the fundamental questions that preoccupied my youth. Like tears in rain they became lost in life’s torrent of distractions, inanities and wasteful activities.
Renwick has helped me find who I am again and to truly know it for the first time. I am a beast of a man.
What’s next – it’s damn time I learn how to train it.
This is from a documentary about brown hyenas on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, but the black-backed jackals stole the scene here!
They are like piranhas in canid form!
The San Diego Humane Society has been serving the San Diego County community since 1880 and has campuses in San Diego, Escondido, and Oceanside. They provide vital services to animals and people by sheltering and adopting animals, providing positive reinforcement training classes, investigating animal cruelty and neglect, presenting education programs for youth and adults, and much more.
Here’s what The San Diego Humane Society had to say about a recent Halo Pets donation:
“The food donation has helped keep hundreds of families together by providing nutritious food for our clients’ pets. The In-Home Service currently provides food and support services to 520 people and 657 pets and the Pantry Service helps more than 2,000 people and 3,000 animals by providing supplemental bags of pet food during times of need. It has made it possible for PAWS San Diego to keep these deserving pet families together in the face of hardship.
In-Home Service client Betty and her cat, Harley, are just two of the lives that have been directly impacted by your generous food donation. Betty says that because she is an “old lady,” and her cat Harley is an “old man,” they keep each other company and that life is worth living because Harley is in it. Their story is a true testament to the human-animal bond and the many ways that pets make our lives better – something that is especially profound for the vulnerable people and pets that we help.
Joe moved to San Diego from San Francisco, where he worked full time as a web designer. He was recently diagnosed with a degenerative disease that has rendered him unable to work. He now lives on a very fixed income and relies on food stamps, yet his infectious personality still shines through. Joe says that his dog, Venus, is his reason for waking up in the morning, especially on those tough days. Joe was very relieved to learn about the PAWS Pantry Service, through which he and Venus receive supplemental pet food once per month. Joe says the support is a huge help and he is happy to have his best friend by his side.”
Thank you San Diego Humane Society for making a WHOLE lot difference for pets in your community.
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