New research

Because working with a living species creates a dynamic research program in itself, there is never a shortage of new questions to answer. A couple of the latest micro-projects encompassed within this long-term coyote research are summarized below.

BEHAVIORAL TESTING IN THE FIELD

How do you study the behavior of wild coyotes while limiting the likelihood of unnatural responses due to human presence, traps, and/or cages? Follow the coyotes into the field, of course!
 
Novel Object Test exampleTwo types of field tests that we are now conducting on some of the radio-collared individuals are flight initiation distance tests and novel object tests. Both are ways to examine coyote boldness levels, where “boldness” is a term that describes how willing coyotes are to explore and/or take risks. Note that boldness does not necessarily correlate to coyote aggression. 

Flight Initiation Distance Tests are used to measure how boldly animals behave toward humans. Novel Object Tests are used to gauge the relative boldness of individuals to new stimuli in their known environments.

Data collected from these field-based methods will be combined with other approaches to examine behavioral syndromes (i.e. bold-shy tendencies) in forest preserve, suburban, and urban coyotes throughout the Chicago area. So far, there has been quite a bit of variation across the urban gradient. Stay tuned for more results!

STABLE ISOTOPE ANALYSIS OF DIET

One of the most frequently asked questions of any wildlife species is what do they eat? The question is simple in nature but has more complex reasons for being asked because it can alter wildlife management protocols. Understanding the answer means employing the latest scientific techniques to identify food types. Historically, biologists have relied on scat surveys, visuals, and necropsies to determine what makes up an urban coyote diet. While these results are valuable, they are often unspecific to individuals; therefore behavioral and movement data cannot be paired with a known animal's diet. These surveys may also under-represent the quantity of human foods present because items are often hard to detect once ingested.

A whisker sample is taken from an anesthetized coyote for dietary analysis

A whisker sample is taken from an anesthetized coyote for dietary analysis

Partnering with Dr. Seth Newsome at the University of New Mexico, this new project takes whisker samples collected from coyotes at their original capture date and processes the samples using stable isotope analysis. By investigating comparative food sources, Dr. Newsome can identify ratios of elements common to specific food types and then plot an animal's diet habits according to type and season  (given a standard timeline for whisker regeneration). This also allows the team to study trends in individualistic behaviors because each animal's specific diet can be compared with what is known about the animal from location tracking data. Therefore, researchers can begin to understand if what coyotes eat is specific to the environment where they live (whether or not a coyote who lives in downtown Chicago is consuming natural or anthropogenic resources). Turns out, they are eating like individuals. A paper covering initial findings was just published in Oecologia and can be found on our scientific resources page or directly by clicking here.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC INVOLVEMENT

Coyote 841 displays his temporary Crittercam collar

Coyote 841 displays his temporary Crittercam collar

We had the pleasure of recently becoming involved with the use of a new technology available from National Geographic's team. Because our project is well established and also unique in location, we were selected to deploy Crittercams on coyotes this past year. These special collars have both camera and tracking capabilities that allow us to pre-program recording times and schedule drop-offs. Although battery space is limited and as such, animals only wear the collars for a few days, we obtained never-before-seen footage captured from the coyote's point of view.

While "totally awesome" might describe these collars, more importantly, they offer us a new ability to see into the life of a wild, urban coyote that we never thought possible. We can begin pairing actual visuals with telemetry (location) data, allowing us to study behaviors such as how coyotes make the decisions they do. For instance, we can literally watch how they approach roads, cars, people, pets, and even prey. And we can pair these observations with other characteristic behaviors identified at capture, along with the animal's genetics, to better understand individual variations within the population. We hope to collect more data from these Crittercams in the future. A news release from National Geographic can be found on our media page, which includes actual footage from coyotes wearing Crittercam collars. For more information on these collars, visit the National Geographic webpage on Crittercams.

coyote 571 image

Coyote 571 was a coyote who beat the odds, every time. She was captured first in December 2011, not yet a year old. Given her young age class and healthy appearance, she was fitted with a standard radio-collar and we stood back to see what her story would be. 571 turned out to be an amazing suburban animal. Although she did not navigate downtown Chicago streets, the Hoffman Estates/Schaumburg (IL) suburbs can often be an equally challenging network of traffic patterns (for human or animal).