Because working with a species in the wild creates a dynamic research program in itself, there is never a shortage of new questions to answer. A couple of the latest studies encompassed within this long-term coyote research are summarized below.
USING GENETICS TO EXPLAIN BEHAVIOR
Urban conditions such as habitat fragmentation, development, increased road density, human disturbances, and food availability may cause some species to alter their behavior to exploit the landscape. Many behaviors have been linked to specific gene regions and behavioral differences between individuals living in different environments can also have a genetic component. To research this, we quantified coyote behavior in an extreme urban-suburban gradient and determined if there were allelic differences by population in dog behavioral gene regions. Behavioral data, such as the actions of a coyote during capture, processing, and an arm test, were recorded for over 80 Chicago Metropolitan Area coyotes during 2013-2016. For each captured coyote, a minimum of two observers assigned a 1-7 score for bold and aggression, and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and microsatellites were sequenced from eight gene regions.
We found several behavioral differences during capture with city coyotes being more likely to vocalize, display teeth, and try to evade capture more than coyotes living in either the suburban matrix or suburban forest preserves. Most aggressive coyotes were defensively aggressive as they were more likely to be classified as a scared/shy individual versus bold. This means that the animals acted aggressively out of fear and as a defensive mechanisms rather than pure or bold aggressive behavior. We found differences between dog and coyote sequences in behavioral gene regions. Some behavioral gene regions were also different between coyote populations living in different landscape types, indicating that environmental conditions may be selecting for certain behaviors that are controlled by genes. To better manage coyote populations in cities, it is important to understand the relationship between urbanization and predator behavior. Understanding the mechanisms, both environmental and genetic, behind boldness and aggression is crucial towards mitigating human-coyote conflicts.
BEHAVIORAL TESTING IN THE FIELD
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.
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.
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
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.