Evolution never stops, and to this day creatures are still being discovered in the wild. Take the coywolf, a new type of hybrid animal that scientists believe has only appeared in the last 100 years.
What is a coywolf, anyway? Coywolves are the result of crossbreeding between coyotes, wolves, and domestic dogs, and many researchers believe they should be considered a new species of canine. Unlike many animal hybrids, coywolves can give birth to fertile offspring - which is one of the primary criteria for anointing a new species. They are a uniquely American phenomena, with populations primarily found in the eastern parts of the US and Canada.
So, is it a new wolf species, or a new species of coyote, or something entirely different? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. There are a lot of questions scientists are still trying to answer, and as more facts about coywolves are published, the world will have a clearer picture of these fascinating new animals.
The name “coywolf" may be a bit of a misnomer, because it unites coyotes and wolves but ignore the 10% of DNA they share with domestic dogs. Because of the intense amount of hybridization going on in their genes, it is hard to get a broad sense of the genetic makeup of coywolves. Simply put, every coywolf is different. Some have more coyote, some more wolf, and everywhere in between. The fact there is so much variation between individual coywolves is one of the primary reasons some critics don’t believe it’s quite time to start calling them a new species - at least not yet.
Unlike wolves - who live exclusively in the wilderness - coywolves take after their coyote ancestors and can quite comfortably coexist with humans in urban environments. They are rarely skittish around humans, and it’s thought that at least one woman in Nova Scotia was killed by a pack of coywolves while hiking alone. It’s clear coywolves are not deterred by our presence, and they can actually thrive in major cities. They have been known to roam the streets of Washington, Boston, and even New York City, where they use abandoned subway lines to travel freely.
Gray wolf populations plummeted in North America upon the arrival of European settlers. Wolves were hunted as pests, and the clearing of their habitat for farmland had a tremendous impact on their numbers. By the end of the 1930s, grey wolves were almost entirely extinct in the United States.
While wolves are slowly recovering, thanks largely to conservation programs like the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yosemite National Park, hybridization may pose an existential risk for the struggling species. Some scientists are even going as far as sterilizing coyotes in areas where the critically endangered red wolf lives. Interbreeding is destroying the genetic integrity of these wolves, whose numbers in the wild have dwindled to about 50.
With how widespread they have become, it’s tough to imagine coywolves were only identified less than 100 years ago. The first coyote-wolf hybrids have been traced back to the year 1919, when western coyotes migrated from the American Southwest all the way to Ontario, Canada. It was there coyotes first came into contact with eastern wolves, and nature took its course. From Algonquin Provincial Park, the descendants of these animals spread throughout the east at a remarkable speed. They have continued to spread to this day, and their range now takes them from Canada to the Mid-Atlantic states.