Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Variability in Size & Law and Among Wild Canids

A 104-pound coyote or a wolf with a little coyote in it?

I got a question earlier today about variability in the size of red fox.

My response was the same as it always is:

[F]ox size are variable all over, just as wolves are, and coyotes are, but they "bell out" at an average weight of around 15 pounds +/- two pounds, and that's true all over.

Yes, across broad regions there is some variation in size, but this seems to be mostly due to the length of the body. Italian dog foxes average two pounds lighter than their English kin, and Italian vixens averaged one pound lighter than their English counterparts. Though you would think this might make for an English fox with a slightly larger chest, this does not appear to be the case -- body length seems to be the determinant variable.

In my experience, Maryland fox are about 12-15 pounds, but I have handled some smaller (11 pounds) and a few that were considerably larger. I do not kill fox, but I have friends who do, and they have booked a few as big as 22 pounds. Still a small chest though. A fox is mostly fur! It says a lot that there are no fox taxidermy manikins with chests larger than 14" around.

Wolves and coyotes, of course, are another matter altogether.

Both are extremely variable in size, reflecting the fact that they are true dogs (Canis) with the extreme plasticity we see in that genus, rather than merely a canidae which includes the fox (Vulpes) genus.

How variable are coyotes in size?

Western coyotes seem to average around 22-30 pounds or so, with Eastern Coyotes weighing in at 30-40 pounds. That said, in some places, such as New York's Adirondacks National Park, the coyotes are very large (50-60 pounds) and DNA testing shows a lot of wolf blood running just below the surface.

Coyotes and wolves will interbreed if they cannot find a mate, and both species will, on rare occasion, naturally hybridize with domestic dogs.

The "Red Wolf," which was once common all along the East Coast, and has since been reintroduced into North Carolina, is simply a stable wolf-coyote hybrid.

So how big and how small can a coyote get?

On the small side of the stick, the answer is about 18 pounds -- well within the bell curve for a large red fox.

On the large side, however, the question is a little harder to answer, as it depends on what you want to call a coyote.

In Maine there are "coyotes" that weigh more than 70 pounds, but most of these really large animals are at least half wolf.  In fact, about one out of every five Maine "coyotes" is actually at least 50 percent wolf.

The biggest allegedly pure coyote ever shot appears to be a "coyote" shot in Carroll County, Missouri on the opening day of the deer season this November 13th.

On the web site of the Missouri Department of Conservation they say:

DNA tests show that a 104-pound canine shot by a hunter in Carroll County Nov. 13 was an unusually large coyote.

The hunter shot the big canine on opening day of Missouri’s November firearms deer season, thinking it was a coyote. Coyotes are legal game during deer season. However, when the hunter saw the animal’s size, he wondered if he had mistakenly shot a wolf. He reported the kill to Conservation Agent Marc Bagley.  Bagley took possession of the animal and turned it over to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Resource Science Division for identification.

Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer said the MDC staff took measurements and collected tissue and hair samples for DNA analysis. The test showed the animal was a coyote.

According to Beringer, the coyote was a male approximately 3 years old. It had no tattoos, microchip or evidence of ear tags that would indicate it might have escaped or been released from captivity.

Do I actually believe this animal is 100 percent coyote? 

Not for a minute. 

But I am prepared to be wrong.  I suppose it's possible that this animal had a brain tumor that made its pituitary glands go wild. 

But I am a natural skeptic, and so far I note that there are no full-bodied pictures of this animal next to something which provides scale.   No video either, that I can find.

I think that's odd.  

You would think a 104-pound coyote would have more pictures and video taken of it than Anna Nicole Smith just back from the dead and parading topless on Wall Street. 

So where are the pictures?    Where is the video?  The one head-shot picture we have shows an animal with wolf ears.

And please, no nonsense about there being no pictures because someone, somewhere, is worried about "the antis."   The antis???   Flush that nonsense, please!  

This is America, and we hunt and fish and trap without apology.  We have hunting shows on TV every night, and politicians stepping on themselves to be filmed blasting away at Caribou, Geese and Dove.   In this country, we're not squeamish about showing pictures of any animal, dead or alive!

So where are the pictures and video tape
of this 104-pound coyote?  What's the name of the outfit that did the DNA work? 

Inquiring minds want to know! 

And perhaps I will get an answer... I just shot an email to the dedicated state wildlife personnel in Missouri asking a few questions.  I hope they have time to shoot an answer back!  They might not, of course -- it's the middle of every kind of hunting season under the sun, and there's a lot of work to be done out in the field, I imagine.   But stay tuned!
_ _ _ _ _ _

UPDATE:   Wow!  Not only did I get an answer back from Jeff Beringer, resource scientist and conservation biologist for the State of Missouri, but I got it back almost instantly.  Someone give this man a raise, or at least a valuable first edition copy of Aldo Leopold's book on Game Management!  Mr. Beringer clarifies that:
  • Early test results showed coyote DNA was present in the sampled animal
  • Follow up tests are planned using DNA from wolves from nearby great lake states to see if their wolves also have coyote DNA.
  • It is possible for this animal to be a wolf or wolf hybrid and carry coyote DNA


So, back to the question:  When is a wolf a wolf, and when is a coyote a coyote?   Does a single drop of coyote blood in an animal make it a coyote, or are we going to snap a line and say that every animal over 70 pounds is a wolf, and no DNA testing needed at all?

The reason this question is important, is that while the coyote is not protected anywhere, the wolf is protected almost everywhere. 

A deer hunter shooting a 30-pound coyote has done nothing wrong. 

A deer hunter shooting a 104-pound wolf (three times larger and with very different ears, as can be seen in the photo at top) has just shot a protected animal.

One question that naturally springs to mind is this:  Is Missouri trying to blur the distinction between wolves and coyotes for a larger political purpose, or perhaps just this once to give this particular shooter a break for making an "honest mistake?"

Time will tell as we see what is said, and how it is messaged, and how the information is used. 

Remember, according to the biologists, a Red Wolf (Canis rufus) is just a wolf-coyote hybrid, identical in every way to the animal shot in Missouri in terms of size and looks.   In addition, the Red Wolf is the wolf that was once native to this area, so eventual return to the area is not entirely unexpected. 

But Red Wolves are entirely protected, and anyone shooting one is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act.

Which beggars the question.  Is the Red Wolf a species or a hybrid, or can a species be (as I would argue) a stable hybrid?  

This is the question that I think is about to get launched with a little more urgency.... and which no doubt will burn up the keyboards of arm chair pundits on both sides of the debate.


seeker said...

This may be a stupid question but, nonetheless... last summer I rescued/caught a beautiful silver white German Shepard bitch hanging around our neighborhood. She was still wearing a chain padlocked tightly around her neck and trailing its end. She was about 20 lbs underweight and I presume abused. I contacted the ACO and advised him that I was taking her to the local no-kill shelter. He came over and assisted me getting her to the shelter (apparently he turns over a lot of unclaimed dogs to them when they have room.) Well to go on, there is some concern that Lady is part coyote or even wolf. The shelter looked into having her DNA tested and was told that dogs are too close to wolves to tell even with the blood test. I myself think she's a GSD/Siberian cross so there would be no difference anyway if she was a dog/dog.
So were they lied to, or just being ignored.

Curious Debi and the TX JRTs

PBurns said...

In Texas, that animal is guaranteed to be 100% dog.

The reason I can say that unequivocally is that there are no wolves in Texas and there are so many coyote that no coyote ever has trouble finding a mate.

Wolves and coyotes will hybridize with dogs, but this is much rarer than wolf-coyote hybrids because dogs and wolves have entirely different culture. Dogs bark and only rarely howl, while wolves and coyotes howl and only rarely bark. Wolves and coyotes have only one estrus a year, generally in winter (Jan-Feb), while dogs have two estruses a year, and they can fall at any time of year. Only the alpha male in a pack of wolves or coyote will lift their leg -- all the other males will squat to pee.

Wolves and coyotes will only cross with domestic dogs when wold and coyote numbers are so very rare on the ground that they are unable to find a wolf or coyote mate. And, of course, a wolf or coyote is more likely to intermate than either is to cross with a dog. Coy-dog and wolf-dog crosses occur, but very, very rarely, and that is especially true with coy-dog crosses as coyotes are now very common in every state and every county (outside of Hawaii, of course). Heck, we even have breeding coyotes within the boundaries of Washington, D.C. and New York City!!


seeker said...

I know we don't have any wild wolves, however unfortunatly we have some flaming idiots in the area who think having pet wolves and wolf hybrids are cool. Why is beyond me. I think the fear is that she was the product/ victim of a one of these fools and their ridiculous breeding programs. Again, I'm going for the GSD/SH cross myself. And you are completely right about lots of coyotes. I don't even leave my two outside at night for comcern of their terrier lack of fear.

Debi and the TX JRTs.