Trent University Professor Dr. Bradley White was very recently featured in the startlingly beautiful documentary called Meet the Coywolf on PBS’s Nature.
Professor White, who was at the forefront of the discovery of the coywolf, further extended his knowledge to Arthur about everything there is to know about this versatile new hybrid species, part coyote, part wolf.
“It is a very exciting time to be able to observe the evolution of a species that was formed less than 100 years ago,” said White about the coywolf.
It all started when the Europeans came to North America, killed wolves, cleared forests, and had started on large-scale agriculture.
Their activities allowed the western coyote to expand from the southwest and as such, the first coyotes were seen in Ontario around 1919.
They interbred with the few eastern wolves that were still in the area, and that is when and where the hybridization all began.
The hybrid species is known to have moved east, White explained, and can be tracked as it moved through Quebec and the Maritimes until it finally arrived in Newfoundland on an ice-flow.
The coywolf was first recognized as a large coyote and was called the Eastern coyote.
In Ontario, it was called the bush wolf or tweed wolf, but Dr. Jon Way in Cape Cod, who had been tracking the animals in Massachusetts using radio collars, promoted the current name, coywolf, added White.
White first started with the species when he began working on the wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, and when the genetics showed that these were not gray wolves, but a new species, the eastern wolf (the former name of coywolf).
He reported that the coyotes observed in Ontario were bigger than the western coyotes, and that was what had stirred his interest in their genetics.
The results showed that they were hybrids, a whole new species that was part wolf and part coyote. Ever since their first rendezvous in Algonquin Provincial Park, White has contributed his expertise towards studying the coywolves.
The history of this hybrid follows the history of the European colonization of North America.
It was the wolf control programs, forest clearing and agricultural development that led to the formation of the hybrid, which has successfully colonized the human-impacted landscape.
Further, coywolves contain the genetic material of both the western coyote and eastern wolf, furnishing the hybrid with considerable evolutionary potential.
For instance, in urban areas like Toronto, they are known to have adapted to living in ravines and eating cats and dogs as well as rodents.
Additionally, in eastern Ontario and northern New York, since there are more white-tailed deer in those regions, there is more selection for larger animals that exist in packs like coywolves, and the diet is closer to that of eastern wolves.
White reported that coywolves have shown the potential to adapt to a variety of human-impacted landscapes and habitats. They have already occupied much of the original northern area of the eastern wolf. There is every evidence that they will be successful across North America as they adapt to change.
However, in contrast, other wolves are not adapting, and instead, are decreasing and being restricted to more northern areas of the continent.
This is not to say that humans are free from the impact of having this remarkable hybrid of a carnivore living amongst us. Coywolves are impacting agricultural animals with instances when there have been calls for controls and culls in southwestern Ontario.
According to White, there was also a human fatality reported in Cape Breton that led to calls for control.
However, White reminded us that previous attempts to control coyotes had not been successful, so it is unlikely that the controls will impact the coywolf either.
Besides, the species was formed because of human activities to start with, and now humans will have to “adapt and learn to co-exist with them,” he stated.
Prof. White at is a geneticist at Trent University interested in the conservation of endangered species such as the North Atlantic right whale.
“As change will always be present on our planet, the most important aspect of conservation is the conservation of evolutionary potential which allows species to adapt to change like climate change and human-caused change,” he expressed.
White’s major research interest is to study how the North Atlantic right whale will respond to changes occurring in the North Atlantic, in addition to his involvement in sequencing the genome of the species.