A new study has demonstrated that when coyote parents become habituated to humans, their offspring become more habituated, too. This potentially can lead to negative interactions between coyotes and humans.
Across North America, coyotes are moving into urban environments, and regardless of how they feel about it, urban residents are having to get used to some new animal neighbors. A big question for wildlife researchers is how coyotes habituate to humans, which can potentially lead to conflict…
Until the 20th century coyotes lived mostly in the Great Plains. But when wolves were hunted almost to extinction in the early 1900s, coyotes lost their major predator, and their range began to expand. With continuing landscape changes, coyotes are now increasingly making their way into suburban and urban environments — including New York City, Los Angeles and cities in the Pacific Northwest — where they live, mainly off rodents and small mammals, without fear of hunters.
The new study attempted to understand how a skittish, rural coyote can sometimes transform into a bold, urban one — a shift that can exacerbate negative interactions among humans and coyotes…
A key factor may be parental influence. Coyotes pair for life, and both parents contribute equally to raising the offspring. This may be because of the major parental investment required to raise coyote pups, and the evolutionary pressure to guard them from larger carnivores.
The new study observed coyote families at the Utah facility during their first and second breeding seasons. These coyotes are raised in a fairly wild setting, with minimal human contact and food scattered across large enclosures.
During the experiment researchers occasionally placed all the food near the entrance of the enclosure and had a human researcher sit just outside, watching any approaching coyotes, from five weeks to 15 weeks after the birth of the litter. Then they documented how soon the coyotes would venture toward the food.
The study results suggests coyotes can habituate to humans quickly and that habituated parents pass this fearlessness on to their offspring.
“For the first season, there were certain individuals that were bolder than others, but on the whole they were pretty wary, and their puppies followed. But when we came back and did the same experiment with the second litter, the adults would immediately eat the food — they wouldn’t even wait for us to leave the pen in some instances.
Parents became way more fearless, and in the second litter, so, too, were the puppies.”
-Dr. Christopher Schell, assistant professor, University of Washington, Tacoma
In fact, the most cautious pup from the second-year litter ventured out more than the boldest pup from the first-year litter.
The study also looked at two hormones in the coyotes’ fur — cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone, and testosterone. The second litter of pups had mothers who experienced more stress during pregnancy, due to the researchers’ presence during the experiment, so that may have affected their development in the womb. But hormonal changes do not seem to have been passed down in that way.
Instead, the fur samples showed that the bolder pups had higher cortisol levels in their blood, meaning they ventured to the food despite their fear of humans.
Journal Reference: Christopher J. Schell, Julie K. Young, Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf, Rachel M. Santymire, Jill M. Mateo. Parental habituation to human disturbance over time reduces fear of humans in coyote offspring. Ecology and Evolution, 2018; DOI: 10.1002/ece3.4741
Other co-authors of the recent paper include Julie Young at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Predator Research Facility in Utah; Elizabeth Lonsdorf at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania; Rachel Santymire, who has a joint appointment at the University of Chicago and Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, and Jill Mateo, the latter two serving as Schell’s doctoral co-advisors at the University of Chicago. The study was supported by the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ongoing research: Dr. Schell and the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium will launch the Grit City Carnivore Project, which will use infrared motion-capture cameras to track coyotes and raccoons throughout the region. It’s part of the Chicago-based Urban Wildlife Information Network, studying urban wildlife across the country.