Canada's mythic coydog does not exist. Like the sasquatch and other fabled creatures, it is something quite ordinary, say researchers.
The origin of the myth goes back more than 100 years when the late 1800's saw Ontario expanding into the wilderness. Settlers struggled to establish agriculture in the province and farmers faced frontier obstacles, not the least of which was the grey wolf (Canis lupus). Having lost much of their natural food source of moose, deer and elk due to human intervention and deforestation, the wolf turned to domestic animals and farmers lost livestock in droves. Armed with snares, traps and guns -- and encouraged by a bounty of up to $15 per animal -- they drove the species close to extinction.
For 40 years, few large canids were seen in Southern Ontario and it wasn't until the early 1930s that reports of a large coyote-like animal began to surface. By all accounts, the creature was too big to be a coyote and too small to be wolf. For the farming community, the explanation was simple: The strange new canids were the result of breeding between coyotes and dogs that had turned wild. This, then, was the genesis of the coydog myth that today represents a fundamental component of Ontario wilderness legend. Well, it's wrong, researchers conclude. Such an animal could not possibly be the result of hybridizing between coyotes and dogs. Every dog breed seen today has its origins in the grey wolf.
"Looking at a poodle and a German shepherd, you wouldn't say they were the same entity, but they are," says Dr. Bradley White, a biologist and geneticist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. For this reason, researchers deliberately bred coyotes (Canis latrans) to grey wolves to see what would result. The unlikely courtship produced an unhappy progeny. For openers, the reproductive cycling differences between coyotes and wolves meant the offspring of captive-bred pairs were born in the middle of winter. This, by itself, would be devastating to young in the wild. However, it was made worse by the fact that the father took no role in rearing the young. The researchers also report a high degree of congenital deformities,
All things considered, the hybrid is likely not responsible for the frequency of sightings. So, if not a coydog, then what are people seeing?
"We believe it is an Eastern Coyote," says Dr. White. In fact, the animal is more a coy-coywolf than anything. The wolves in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park, for example, are not grey wolves but are instead closely related to the red wolf (canis rufus), an animal with quite a different genetic makeup that points to an evolutionary link with coyotes. The connection, say researchers, is independent of the grey wolf, which cannot easily mate with the coyote. The red wolf, on the other hand, can.
The finding comes from an evaluation of the park's wolves. Armed with the results, Dr. White and his colleagues are unlocking the true genetic ingredients of the canis soup seen in Ontario today.
The relationship between eastern wolves and red wolves began around 2 million years ago and involved a third partner. At that time, canids in North America divided -- one group migrated to Eurasia, while a second group remained in North America. It is the second group that eventually diverged into red wolves and coyotes. DNA sequencing established that red wolves, eastern wolves and coyotes shared a common ancestor as recently as 150,000 years ago. It is this close genetic connection that enables hybridization between red wolves and coyotes. During the same Pleistocene era, some grey wolves returned by way of the Bering land bridge. As a result, grey wolves became genetically removed from the other canids in North America and thus made further hybridization implausible.
With this new genetic evidence in hand, Dr. White and his team want the eastern Canadian wolf (Canis lycaon) to retain its original taxonomic designation. They also want the same designation applied to the red wolf, now canis rufus.
"Our view is that rufus and lycaon are the same animal," says Dr. White. "We want a Canadian perspective here. We're calling this wolf the eastern Canadian wolf."
Although the researchers refer to the animal as Canis lycaon/rufus, they believe it should be changed to lycaon, which has precedence over rufus. It's an animal that has enjoyed a big impact on what people are seeing in the wild. So, what was thought to be a coydog is actually the result of hybridization between the more closely related western coyote (Canis latrans) and red wolf (Canis lycaon), an animal once common in the southern United States.
The decline of the grey wolf population in Ontario left room for the western coyote to move in. Along the way, hybridization took place between the western coyote and the red wolf and partly explains how they escaped the onslaught of man. After all, farmers and hunters targetted grey wolves -- not coyotes or the smaller red wolf.
Coyotes are still mating with red wolves, says Dr. White. "I think there's gene flow. The red-wolf program [researchers]are desperate about coyote hybridization and its impact." Unfortunately there is no way to manage such inter-species fraternization. "Given the way these animals have adapted to the massive North American change over the past hundred years, it's hard to believe that it won't carry on." Ian O'Neill is a nature and wildlife writer who lives in Oakville, Ont.