The wily coyote—dogged by reputation, this coy ‘wolf’ continues to surprise
In many American Indian tales and traditions, the coyote is renowned as the Trickster—greedy, vain, cunning, and a liar.1,2 When European settlers arriving at the Great Plains first encountered it, aside from “heralding it as an icon of the expansive West”, the coyote’s reputation fared little better. Raids on livestock soon saw the colonists “vilifying it as the ultimate varmint, the bloodthirsty bane of sheep and cattle ranchers.”3 No doubt remembering Europe’s wolves, which it resembles, the settlers’ names for the coyote included brush wolf, prairie wolf, little wolf, and cased wolf. (Sometimes also the American jackal; though larger, the coyote is similar to the golden jackal of Eurasia.)
Mark Twain did the coyote’s reputation no favours, writing in 1886 that it was “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.”4
Twain’s vivid description inspired animator Chuck Jones in 1948 to create the Warner Bros. cartoon character Wile E. Coyote—the dogged, diabolically clever but perennially unsuccessful hunter of Road Runner, who easily outran Wile. In reality, the coyote, with a top speed of 69 km/h (43 mph) would easily catch the roadrunner, less than half as fast—32 km/h (20 mph).5 Sixty-five years later, TV Guide featured Wile E. Coyote among the top 60 nastiest villains ever on television.
With all this negative PR, it’s perhaps not surprising that a concerted effort to shoot, trap, and poison coyotes continues, killing tens of thousands every year—yet their numbers have increased. “Killing coyotes is kind of like mowing the lawn,” lamented one researcher, “It stimulates vigorous new growth.”3 Indeed, the coyote’s range has now dramatically expanded well beyond the western prairie and desert lands. Coyotes occupy habitats as diverse as forest and tundra, mountain and coast, wild and urban. People living in Los Angeles and other west coast cities have from time to time been attacked by coyotes, sometimes fatally. In the last 90 years or so the coyote has rapidly colonized all of eastern North America as well, including suburban New York City. (Coyotes in the east have been called ‘eastern coyote’ for convenience in academically distinguishing them from the ‘western coyote’ of traditional lands.) And recently, for the first time ever, the coyote has even been seen south of the Panama Canal.
Living up to its ‘wily’ reputation
One reason for the coyote’s success is its wiliness in avoiding detection. Wildlife ecologist Dr Laura Pugh described her experience of trying to survey coyote populations in Alaska as being “like working with a ghost species”.3 She said coyotes are so warily smart, her traps had to first be boiled to wash away human scent, handled only with gloves and then hidden so as all traces of human footprints were brushed away. But even then, she generally only caught the youngest and most inexperienced ones.
Similarly, Dr Stanley Gehrt initially guessed that maybe a hundred coyotes lived in metropolitan Chicago. But after a decade of radio tracking, he now conservatively estimates more like 2,000 coyotes there, furtively foraging in suburbia, mostly evading public view.3
The coyote’s flexibility when it comes to food and the often-wily means of obtaining it is also a key to its success. Its prey can include bison, deer, pigs, sheep, rabbits, rodents, birds, flying squirrels, frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, crustaceans, and beetles. And eggs. Coyotes have been seen plundering multiple Canada goose nests in a single night, methodically gathering up uneaten eggs and burying them for later consumption.3 The coyote can hunt alone, or use teamwork and form packs, as expedient. Deer can generally be successfully caught by coyotes only when they hunt as a pack. They take turns pursuing the deer until it tires, or they drive it toward a hidden member of the pack waiting in ambush.6 In packs, coyotes have a large number of different vocalizations which they seem to use to communicate. This is reflected in its Latin scientific name Canis latrans, ‘barking dog’.
Sometimes the coyote will even team up with other (non-canine) predators—e.g. the American badger (Taxidea taxus).7 While the badger digs towards a ground squirrel hiding in its burrow, the coyote will lie in wait at an exit hole, ready to grab and kill the unfortunate prey when it tries to escape. Then the two ‘partners-in-crime’—wily coyote and ‘bad guy’ badger—share the meal. The hunting partnership can be long-lasting. In Wyoming, researchers noticed the same coyote-badger pairs teaming up repeatedly to hunt for burrow-dwelling prey.3
Another key to the coyote’s success is that hunting is not its only means of obtaining food. It is also a known scavenger, even of the carcasses of other coyotes. And to the surprise of many, its diet is not restricted to meat. Coyotes are known to eat berries, stone fruit, apples, watermelons, prickly pears, chapotes, persimmons, beans, peanuts, carrots, and grass—a characteristic of the coyote’s ancestors in the pre-Fall world, when they ate only “every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:30). So their herbivorous side shouldn’t really surprise, especially given the incidences of 100% vegetarian/vegan dogs today (‘echoes of Eden’?).8,9 For the coyote is really only a ‘dog’, albeit one in wolf’s clothing.
Genetic ‘dog soup’
In 2010, two separate research teams began publishing the results of genetic analyses showing that eastern coyotes were actually coyote-wolf hybrids (which helped to explain why they were larger than their western counterparts, but not as big as wolves).10,11,12 The research team led by Dr Jonathan Way of the National Park Service referred to them as ‘coywolves’, which media outlets enthusiastically reported to the public.13,14 This opened up a war of words with the other research team led by Dr Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, who argued ‘coywolf’ could not be applied to the eastern coyote as it was not a new species.15 Further confounding the situation, analysis showed that the eastern coyote has DNA from the domestic dog too (a hybridization which explains the interesting coat colour variants among eastern coyotes).16 The debate seemed to revolve around the definition of ‘species’, and a bystander could be forgiven for concluding there is mass confusion. An article in The New York Times summarized it well:
One major complication is that all the species in the genus Canis, to which the coyote belongs, can successfully interbreed. In other words, coyotes ( … Canis latrans … ) and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and every kind of wolf, from the red wolf to the Eastern wolf to the gray wolf (Canis lupus), can mate and produce perfectly healthy pups. No wonder, then, that interactions among these species have led to a genetic mess that researchers sometimes refer to as ‘Canis soupus.’3
Similarly, from The Economist:
One common definition of a species is a population that will not interbreed with outsiders. Since coywolves continue to mate with dogs and wolves, the argument goes, they are therefore not a species. But, given the way coywolves came into existence, that definition would mean wolves and coyotes should not be considered different species either—and that does not even begin to address whether domestic dogs are a species, or just an aberrant form of wolf.12
All this points to the truth of what creationists have long pointed out, that all the variously-labelled canine species today are in fact a single biblical created ‘kind’ (Genesis 1:24–25), descended from one pair on the Ark. So Noah didn’t need to provide space and food for coyotes, corgis, dingoes, dalmatians, jackals, and wolves—he only needed two ‘dogs’ (Genesis 6:19–20).
Natural selection isn’t evolution
According to Dr Kays, we are witnessing “Coywolfdog evolution”15:
The first requirement for evolution is variation, and mixing genes from two species creates all sorts of new variations for evolution to act on. … Some of these genetic mixes will survive better than others—this is natural selection. The coyote with a bit of wolf genes to make it slightly larger was probably better able to handle deer … Coyotes with odd coat colors or hair types are probably the most conspicuous sign of dog genes in action … Some of these genes will help an animal survive and breed; others will make them less fit. Natural selection is still sorting this out, and we are witnessing the evolution of a new type of coyote right under our noses … .15
But this ‘evolution’ from mixing existing genes (note, no new ones) hasn’t even generated what Dr Kays is happy to call a new species,17 let alone the sort of new genetic information required for some supposed free-living primitive ‘cell’ to have ultimately become a coyote, as evolutionary theory claims. Evolutionists will usually invoke mutations as being a potential source of new genetic information, but in reality mutations don’t help,18,19 and aren’t in the picture here anyway. So in a nutshell: why would anyone expect that the process of death removing genes from a population (i.e. an organism dies without passing its genes on to the next generation) could ever produce new genetic information? Beware the ‘bait-and-switch’: natural selection is not evolution.
Death—not the solution but a problem
Evolutionary theory portrays death as a natural part of life and erroneously attempts to use it to explain how the coyote came into existence over millions of years. Conversely, the Native American legends mentioned at the start of this article put death after the coyote, not before. Navajo and Maidu origins stories or ‘creation myths’ speak of the coyote as Trickster being the originator of death in the world, along with suffering and hard work.1,2,20 Before then, “All fruits were easy to obtain, no-one was ever to get sick and die.”
Astute Bible-readers will recognize the parallels with Genesis—especially that death is an intruder, a problem. But there’s been a clouding of the identity of the Trickster—as happens with oral tales versus written transmission of the Scriptures down the generations.21,22 Rather, the Bible says it was the cunning of “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” that tricked Eve (Genesis 3:13, 2 Corinthians 11:3, Revelation 12:9), and led to Adam sinning, and the entry of hard work, suffering, and death into the world (Genesis 3:6,11–12,17–19, Romans 5:12). Thankfully, the Bible also speaks of the (only!) solution to all this—Jesus Christ.
References and notes
- Cooper, G., Coyote in Navajo religion and cosmology, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 7(2):181–193, 1987. Return to text.
- Beckman, T., Maidu and other origin stories from central California, pages.hmc.edu, 1998. Return to text.
- Yoon, C., Mysteries that howl and hunt, nytimes.com, 27 September 2010. Return to text.
- Mark Twain’s coyote description from Roughing It, 1886, classicreader.com/book/1407/6/. Return to text.
- What’s it like to be an animal?, speedofanimals.com, acc. 22 Dec 2017. Return to text.
- Bradford, A., Coyote facts, livescience.com, 25 September 2015. Return to text.
- Howard, J., The American badger, Creation 35(4):28–31, 2013; creation.com/badger. Return to text.
- Vegan dog, Creation 25(2):7, 2003; creation.com/vegan-dog. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., The Australian dingo, Creation 27(2):10–15, 2005; creation.com/dingo. Return to text.
- Kays, R., Curtis, A., and Kirchman, J., Rapid adaptive evolution of northeastern coyotes via hybridization with wolves, Biology Letters 6(1):89–93, 2010 | doi (23 September 2009):10.1098/rsbl.2009.0575. Return to text.
- Way, J., and 3 others, Genetic characterisation of eastern ‘coyotes’ in eastern Massachusetts, Northeastern Naturalist 17(2):189–204, 2010. Return to text.
- Way, J., Taxonomic implications of morphological and genetic differences in northeastern coyotes (coywolves) (Canis latrans × C. lycaon), western coyotes (C. latrans), and eastern wolves (C. lycaon or C. lupus lycaon), Canadian Field-Naturalist 127(1):1–16, 2013. Return to text.
- Greater than the sum of its parts, The Economist, economist.com, October 2015. Return to text.
- Coywolves: hybrid reveals clues about dog kind, Creation 38(2):10, 2016; creation.com/coywolves. Return to text.
- Kays, R., Yes, eastern coyotes are hybrids, but the ‘coywolf’ is not a thing, theconversation.com, 13 November 2015. Return to text.
- vonHoldt, B., and 18 others (including Kays, R.), A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids, genome.org, 2011. Return to text.
- Though if he were to call it that, creationists would have no problem—see creation.com/speciation. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., The 3 Rs of evolution: Rearrange, Remove, Ruin—in other words, no evolution!: The genetic changes observed in living things today could not have turned bacteria into basset hounds—ever, Creation 35(2):47–49, 2013; creation.com/3rs. Return to text.
- Cosner, L., ‘Parade of mutants’—pedigree dogs and artificial selection, Creation 32(3):28–32, 2010; creation.com/pedigree. Return to text.
- The Creation—a Maidu legend, firstpeople.us, acc. 7 December 2017. Return to text.
- Maidu stories also speak of a flood (cf. Genesis 6–9), and of there being an original single language, subsequently confused (cf. Genesis 10, 11). Return to text.
- Cf. Cosner, L., Why did God give us a book? Creation 37(4):16–17, 2015; creation.com/why-book. Return to text.