Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Eastern Wolf

The canid predators of the northeast have increased during my lifetime. When I was young and they were rare everyone called them "coydogs", assuming that they were dog- coyote hybrids. This was biologically unlikely for several reasons-- their uniformity, the difficulty of pups produced from a one- estrus parent (the coyote) and a two- estrus one (dog) surviving winter birth in a harsh land. Later everyone just called them "coyotes", though they were almost twice the size of a western coyote, had much more robust skulls (until recently I had skulls of both) and had handsome, heavy, dark coats marked around the face like wolves. I remember seeing them when I was in western Massachusetts in the mid- seventies, and they didn't just eat mice, either. I lived near Quabbin Reservoir, basically a huge wild lake with no habitation on its shores, with bald eagles, goshawks, fishers, bears,and many big "coyotes". On many occasions in winter I saw them feeding on dead deer on the Quabbin ice, and once I saw them drive a doe out onto the ice and kill it.

Now Sari Mantila of Finland, web- godess and founder of Tazi List, sends this link to a story from the Caledonian Record in St Johnsbury Vermont. It seems like what some of us have always suspected is true: they aren't just coyotes. The article quotes Fish and Wildlife biologist Thomas Decker: "It's smaller than a wolf, and larger than a coyote," Decker said. "It's a hybrid... between a large, eastern coyote and a wolf."

Of course, this thesis immediately gets hit by political implications. Some want to introduce regular "timber" wolves (Canis lupus) to the northeast. Some think the current "wolves" are just a humanly- influenced "mutt".

But not so fast. What WERE the original wolves of the northeast? "The scant evidence, according to Jakubas, suggests they were not "timber wolves," or gray wolves (Canis lupus), as northern and western wolves now are called. Rather, he said they appear to have been similar to the red wolves (Canis rufus) found in Canada's Algonquin Provincial Park north of Toronto".

The article goes on to say that most believe that when the wolves were hunted out they were then replaced by coyotes from the west that in turn hybridized with returning timber wolves. What none of them seem to realize is that the southern "red wolf" is already a natural hybrid of coyote and timber wolf! Using Occam's razor, wouldn't it be easier to believe that the northeast's canid retreated briefly (if at all) into Canada and then returned?

One more thought. The red wolf is another post- glacial phenomenon, as C. lupus came over the Bering Bridge with Clovis man to mingle its genes with the "native" (doubtless, like the dire wolf, product of one of the Bridge's earlier emergences) coyote. I guess they hadn't diverged too far...

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