Wolf? Coyote? Coywolf? Understanding Wolf Hybrids Just Got a Bit Easier

Gray wolf, red wolf, coywolf, coydog. Wild canine taxonomy can be confusing -- and often comes with a heavy helping of folklore. But what does the science really say?

In a Nutshell: Eastern wolves, often considered to be a hybrid of gray wolves and coyotes, actually represent a separate species, revealed by the latest genomic research published in Biology Letters. The paper also helps clarify the hybrid origins of other wild canines, including Eastern coyotes and Great Lakes wolves.

Unlike Little Red Riding Hood, most of us can tell the difference between a wolf and Grandmother. But beyond that: our wolf identification skills are probably not as good as we think.

Consider the names bandied about the popular media today: gray wolf, red wolf, coyote, coywolf, coydog. Which of these are species? What is the real deal with hybrids? What does it mean for conservation?

The answers are not simple, in large part because the topic of wolves and wolf hybrids often resides more in the realm of folklore than biology. A good way to pick a fight in any bar in rural America is to start offering opinions on “Canadian gray wolves” or “coywolves” or “eastern coyotes.”

What does the science say?

A new paper in the journal Biology Letters uses the latest genomic techniques to give a clearer picture of canid taxonomy and hybrid origins. The researchers used a technique called restriction site association DNA marker sequencing (RADSeq) and genomic simulations to resolve the hybrid status of wild canines in North America.

It’s only in the last ten years that these techniques have been developed to be able to understand complicated biological systems — not just in humans and fruit flies, but in wolves and all kinds of other creatures.

A whole new set of questions can now be answered with these genomic techniques – including questions about wolf hybrids.

Even the paper’s authors acknowledge that canine taxonomy can be, well…complicated.

“The genetics has gotten very complicated,” says the paper’s lead author, Linda Rutledge, post-doctoral researcher and instructor at Trent University, Ontario. “It’s very difficult for people to read genomic papers and understand them.”

So what should wildlife conservationists know about this research? Here are some key points.

Despite being often overlooked, Eastern wolves are a separate species.

The paper notes two prevailing evolutionary models for animals in the Canis genus in North America. One model maintains that there are two species of wild canids: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and coyote (Canis latrans). Their comingling has also resulted in various hybrids.

The second adds a third species to the mix: the Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon).

For years, many have considered the Eastern wolf to be one of the hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes. This has led to confusion among policy makers and the general public.

The genomic research in this paper found no evidence that the Eastern wolf is a hybrid.

It’s a separate species.

Disagreement over the eastern wolf’s evolutionary history may be its biggest threat.

As geneticists debate, policy makers and wildlife managers base their decisions on confusing information. Or, more often: they feel paralyzed to make decisions.

Eastern wolves, though, need action. Their core population is centralized in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. For many years, the animals could be legally shot as soon as they left the park.

That’s changed: there is now a buffer zone around the park that prohibits all hunting and trapping of wild canids.

But beyond that, protection of eastern wolves in Ontario is largely on paper only. Why? The eastern wolf is difficult to tell apart from the coyote. And coyotes can be hunted or trapped year round, without bag limits.

So it’s essentially open season on eastern wolves in potential expansion areas.

The paper’s authors hope that establishing the evolutionary history of the eastern wolf, demonstrating it is a species and not a hybrid, will lead to better protection.

“The eastern wolf needs a recovery plan that extends into dispersal areas, including Quebec,” says Rutledge. “There is wonderful habitat for them to disperse into; there just needs to be protection so they are not killed as soon as they disperse out of the buffer zone.”

A Wisconsin coyote. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
A Wisconsin coyote. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Eastern coyotes and Great Lakes wolves are hybrids.

The genomic testing revealed three species of canids, but there are also hybrids arising from these species encountering each other.

Here is what the paper argues about hybrids.

Eastern coyotes are hybrids of western coyotes and eastern wolves. This is the animal often referred to as the coywolf.

Following extermination of wild canids in the eastern United States following European colonization, western coyotes began colonizing the habitat – and bred with eastern wolves when they encountered them on their expansion.

Great Lakes wolves are hybrids of gray wolves and eastern wolves.

Red wolves are likely the same species as eastern wolves.

The researchers did not test for red wolves for this paper, but relied on a body of work conducted previously.

These animals, once found in the southeastern United States, became critically endangered in the 1900s, and the last wild animals were gathered and placed in captive breeding facilities.

The captive breeding of a small population may have caused their genetics to diverge from eastern wolves. They have been since been reintroduced in sites of the Southeast – where they breed readily with coyotes, perhaps further confusing the genetic situation.

“The attention and controversy around wolves is all cultural, not biological,” says coauthor Paul Hohenlohe, assistant professor of biology at the University of Idaho. “But the reality is the biological situation is also complicated. It’s not static.”

The role of canids in ecosystems is as important as their evolutionary history.

Arguments about wolf management and conservation can quickly descend into trying to reconstruct the past. What wolf really belongs in the East? Were gray wolves there? Are Canadian gray wolves the same as Rocky Mountain wolves?

Historical records don’t help. European explorers were not taxonomists, let alone geneticists. They called things by confusing and inconsistent names: brush wolf and gray wolf and black wolf could all mean the same thing, or be perceived as different species.

And so obsessing over what canine belongs where can seem a futile quest.

Lead author Rutledge proposes another way for conservationists to approach this: focus on the ecosystem not the species.

“Conservation focuses on a very species-specific model,” she says. “Agencies often want to know first whether a species is taxonomically valid, but that may not be an efficient way to approach conservation in general. Our research shows that what species are can be very difficult to pin down.”

“But we know that ecosystems need top predators,” she continues. “That is so clear in the case of over-abundant white-tailed deer in eastern forests. The eastern wolf could play that role, if it could disperse.”

In other words: Let’s quit trying to make wolves fit into our neat little taxonomic boxes. Let’s focus instead on how to protect and restore their critical role as top predators.

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The paper: Rutledge LY, Devillard S, Boone JQ, Hohenlohe PA, White BN. 2015 RAD sequencing and genomic simulations resolve hybrid origins within North American Canis. Biol. Lett.11: 20150303. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2015.0303

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  1. David says:

    Thanks for this interesting story, Matt. One key question arises from the last two sentences of this piece: how well do coyotes fill the role of top predator in the east, and what differences are there between coyotes and Eastern wolves in affecting ecosystems? Seems like that is very important information in trying to advance the strategy of enabling dispersal of wolves in the east, since coyote extermination is a barrier to returning wolves to a wider range. If the role of coyotes is similar, that takes away at least one argument for unrestrained shooting of coyote. This also seems to be a situation where the Conservancy’s increasing emphasis on social science could play a significant role.

    1. I think more studies are needed, but it is pretty clear the eastern coyote is not behaving like a wolf. That is again contrary to lore — the “hook and bullet” magazines are full of stories claiming that eastern coyotes are heavily preying on white-tailed deer. Studies suggest otherwise.

      The eastern wolf — that looks an awful lot like a coyote — does prey on deer.

  2. Gary P.Bell says:

    Interesting article Matt. Thanks for the link to the Rutledge paper. One correction: Algonquin is a Provincial Park, operated by the Province of Ontario, not a National Park.

    1. Thanks Gary. I made that correction. — Matt

  3. John Prusinski says:

    It’s my understanding that the hybrid Eastern coyote picked up some predatory advantages from crossbreeding with wolves: greater size, and a tendency to hunt in packs, for example. I would think that would bolster the case for classifying them as top predators in the Eastern ecosystem.

  4. This is a perfect example of one of the many things that are wrong with humans.
    We insist on defining everything. Wolves – coyotes. White – Black people. Straight – gay.
    And by defining things, we think we know something.

    1. Me says:

      Speak for yourself!

    2. Jim Kesel says:

      We cannot live with ignorance.

    3. Jack Reynolds says:

      Defining a thing is only the first step to understanding. It is a necessary one however and should be recognized as such.

  5. Henrietta Jordan says:

    You can view these magnificent creatures locally at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge (977 Springfield Rd., Wilmington) in a new large, natural enclosure.

  6. And says:

    Eastern Coyotes are not as much of an apex predator as Eastern Wolves – even though they share genetics.

  7. Robert says:

    I saw a creature in my headlights one night when I took a friend home in Pinecrest, FL. It certainly wasn’t a dog, it was too big for a fox (wrong color, also), so I guessed it had to be a coyote, but I hadn’t seen such a creature for many years since I lived in Wyoming. I don’t think it was a wolf, because I’d seen wolves in Yellowstone NP, and this creature wasn’t as big as those. This article seems to imply that coyotes and Eastern wolves interbred, but that seems unlikely. Out West, wolves usually chase coyotes away from wherever they frequent, so why wouldn’t Eastern wolves do the same? I’ve seen foxes in the distant Miami suburbs before, so I think coyotes could live there also.

    1. Eastern wolves and coyotes have interbred — the genetic studies are clear on that. Eastern wolves are a different species than gray wolves.

      Similarly, gray wolves and eastern wolves have bred — these hybrids live in the Great Lakes area.

      When people refer to wolf/coyote hybrids, the assumption is this means gray wolf & coyote. That’s not the case: it’s eastern wolf/coytoe or gray wolf/eastern wolf.

    2. Cathy Meyer says:

      They can’t interbreed if they don’t encounter each other. If there are no wolves around, they are just plain coyotes, aren’t they? Could expanding coyote populations have crossed with southeastern red wolves before they were nearly exterminated?

  8. Matt Miller: How about their behavior?? I understand the Eastern hybrid (thought so up to now) behaves like a Coyote, “yips” instead of “howls” and hunts singly rather than in packs. I just read this amazing book Wolf Called Romeo!

    Oakes Plimpton

    1. Hi Oakes, thanks for your comment, and I’ll check out that book. Eastern coyotes, contrary to a lot of stories and anecdotes, are not a significant predator of white-tailed deer. And everything I have read has suggested your observation is correct: they behave like coyotes, not wolves.

      However, eastern wolves do prey on deer. It would be interesting to see what happens if/when eastern wolves expand their range.

    2. Suzanne Griffiths says:

      So here’s a question. Eastern coyotes do not prey on deer. Eastern wolves do, but did I correctly read that they’re not currently found outside of Canada? What was it, then, that clearly preyed on/ate part of a deer on Big Hosmer Lake in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom a few winters ago?

  9. Georgia neal says:

    This is what I think,I think the coyote and wolf are separate creatures , if they the hunters the trappers and the haters if these animals ..will use any reason they can dream up to exterminate the majestic wolves and coyotes …We must stand up for our wildlife they are not a threat to Mankind we the threat …God created his wildlife for a reason ….we can all co exist and help our Eco system We need to stop these self serving bloodthirsty soulless hunters who don,t give a dam about anything accept there own cheap thrills!!God please give your power to stop this now!!

  10. Mark Gall says:

    White tailed deer in the eastern U.S. desperately need to have their numbers consistently reduced for the sake of plant species, other wildlife, and drivers (deer accidents)/farmers. So long as coyote hunting is allowed, I doubt that wolves, or wolf hybrids, can be maintained as they will simply be shot. Biologically, there is no reason for having coyote hunting to keep their numbers down, as their reproductive physiology simply produces larger litters, ie rapidly fills in the eliminated animals. We need large predators, and wolves or hybrids are not a danger to humans, except in some people’s minds.
    I say this as an ex hunter (I’m not against legal hunting), biologist, and retired National Park & BLM ranger.