Out of the gray woods steps a trio of does. They move with trepidation as they enter the the old pasture, which is just now starting to green up in the early spring sun. The big old doe leads the way, stopping every few steps to cast her black nose into the wind and twist her radar-dish ears for any sign of predators.
They have come to graze in the twilight, eating the sweet grass or early spring that was once meant for cattle and horses but is now a fine repast these final months of pregnancy. In just a few months, dappled fawns will be dropping, and the does will be stamping and blowing as the coyotes come slipping through the thickets. By then, the coyotes will have their own young with insatiable appetites for milk and regurgitated meat, and the flesh of fawns will play a major role in determining whether their pups survive until weaning or not.
But that drama is now a long way off. The best these three does can do now is eat the nutritious grass and feed the new life that stirs within them. This is the only thing they can do now to ensure some sort of good start for their babes to come.
Although they seem awfully banal to people living in West Virginia, where they menace flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, and long night drives on lonesome country roads, the white-tailed deer is actually one of the oldest hoofed mammals still in existence. Valerius Geist, a Canadian biologist and deer expert, believes the species is over 3 million years old, a sort of living fossil among a family that includes the giant moose and the diminutive muntjacs.
In those three million years, it watched as the last of the bone-crushing dogs fell to the wayside. Borophagus, a sort of bulldog-coyote of this bone-crusher lineage, was probably among its first major predators, but it was unable to compete with the first jackal-like wolves that were just starting to come on their own. That lineage of jackal-like wolves would evolve into bigger and harder running forms, Edward’s wolf was the first to menace the white-tail. The came Armbruster’s wolf, which grew heavier and more powerfully built, eventually become the dire wolf. The Pleistocene coyote, somewhat larger than the modern species, came long to eat the scraps and lift the fawns in the thickets. A plethora of big cats, including the largest species of lion and the odd wandering jaguar took deer when they could, and the saber-tooth and dirk-toothed cats did the same. Massive short-faced bears probably took the odd deer as well. Whitetail noses and radar ears were made in this world of fell beasts.
They were here to watch the first woolly mammoths come trundling down the continent along with the long-horned bison that gave rise to our buffalo. They were run of persimmon groves by mastodons, those little furry forest elephant, now lost in the long march of time. The whitetails grazed among the three-toed horses and the early forms of the modern species, and among there number were twelve species of pronghorn, a tribe that consists of only a single species of these “fake antelope,” which wanders the Western plains and deserts. The whitetail shared its meals of willow twigs with the stag-moose, a cousin to the modern species that ranged deep into North America and, like all the rest, now extinct and mostly forgotten.
When Europeans came, the whitetail lived among the modern bison and round-horned elk. They were hunted by cougars and wolves of the modern species. Indigenous took them for hides and meat and sinew, and the first Europeans used them in much the same way.
But Europeans fed a market economy. Deer hides were worth quite a bit, as were those of buffalo and elk. Venison was also good meat, and the game herds shrunk. The elk and the bison disappeared, as did the wolf and the cougar. European civilization believed it had conquered nature here and now.
But the whitetails held on. Conservation laws were enacted in the early twentieth century. Deer from other parts of the country were brought in, and the recovery began.
The deer in this new world, free of competitors and predators, found themselves in a paradise their kind had never known before. They grew fat on acorns and dropped many fawns, and in few decades, they had grown strong and numerous in their new kingdom.
So numerous that some would argue they are a pestilence. Others become beguiled by the ivory-colored rapier crowns that the bucks wear in autumn and spend long days in the autumn on a quest to hold these rapier crowns in their own hands.
When I cut into a venison backstrap steak, which I’ve pan-fried medium rare so that it is still oaky and earthy and juicy, I savor the bites. The flesh I eat is captured sunlight that beamed onto the oak trees in June, which became the acorns. The acorns fell and the deer devoured them, and this particular deer died to become the backstrap that my steak knife is cutting through.
But just as the venison is captured June light, it is also profoundly native. This is the flesh of the last surviving wild ungulate to roam these hills, a survivor from the age of the great beasts, when it was one of many things wild and free.
Though the elk may bugle again on some mountainside in Southern West Virginia, the whitetail is the one that withstood the onslaught .
The does to continue to graze in the pasture, but the wind shifts so they can catch my scent. And they bound for the timber, native beings who hold stronger title to the land than I ever could. They now escape into a paradise of oak groves and autumn olive thickets, an eden that they inherited only through the caprices of man.
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.