It’s a ‘dog’s breakfast,’ scientist says
Wolves and coyotes have been mating on the island of Newfoundland, DNA testing keeps showing, and the province’s director of wildlife is monitoring the situation with great interest.
The 11 were harvested over a large portion of the island, from the Baie Verte Peninsula to the Bonavista Peninsula, and a bit inland. Only one — which was caught at Gaff Topsails in 2016 — had crossed over the highway.
“These 11 are certainly pointing to hybridization with grey wolves, which we know we’ve had at least four here on the island since 2008,” said Blake. “It’s just adding to the genetic mix that’s already very hybrid. The eastern Coyote came here in the 1980s. That already had Algonquin wolf as part of its genetic makeup, but very, very small percentages of it would have been wolf.
“What these 11 are showing us is that yes, there has been introgression of the more pure grey wolf — the Labrador grey wolf — into our Eastern coyote genetic mix here on the island.”
A dog’s breakfast
He said he has seen some of the hybrids up close and others in pictures, and while they all fall into the 60-pound range, they don’t all look the same.
“As with hybridization, it doesn’t come out as one feature. So you can have one animal that will take on more of a facial appearance of a wolf than a coyote, and another animal could take on a different morphology characteristic. Maybe it’ll have larger paws than an Eastern coyote would, but smaller than a wolf.”
He said other features, such as coloration, can come out in different ways.
“The thing to remember, too, is there’s actually domestic dog in the genetic makeup of the animals that we’re talking about, so at some point — whether it was through the eastern coyotes that emigrated to Newfoundland, or more recently in breeding with dogs — there is domestic dog genetic material in some of these animals. It’s a really dog’s breakfast — pardon the pun. A genetic soup.”
While this may be news in Newfoundland, it’s by no means abnormal. Blake said the same scenario is playing out in Quebec and Ontario, with hybridization of several species occurring.
“As climate changes, as habitat changes, as we manipulate and change landscapes, these things are going to happen. Species that were once separated — maybe geographically, maybe from a reproductive capacity perspective — if they become a little bit more aligned through whatever reason, whether it’s climate change or habitat change or what have you, well, there’s a chance at hybridization that occurs, and that’s certainly what we saw with Eastern coyotes and wolves in North America,” he said.
“This is not unique to Newfoundland, by no means. It’s new, and therefore interesting, and how it plays out is going to be interesting and it may in fact have an impact on how we manage wildlife in the future.”
DNA testing has confirmed that at least four grey wolves have been caught on the island since 2008, but Blake said he doesn’t think it’s fair at this point to say there’s an established population of them in Newfoundland; it’s just as likely the hybrids were the result of incidental immigrations from Labrador over the years. The department strongly suspects the wolves would have migrated via marine ice, the way polar bears sometimes do.
“Wolves don’t generally do that. They’re very well known in coastal Labrador areas, but usually within sight of land. But any kind of occurrence could have caused that to change — certainly the depletion of their primary food supply in Labrador, ie. Caribou, may have caused them to venture further than they usually would,” Blake said.
Established population or no, the fact that wolves are showing up in Newfoundland is not insignificant. Wolves have gone unreported on the island since the Newfoundland wolf — also known as the canis lupus beothucus — was extirpated in the 1930s.
“1934, I think, is when the last recorded known animal that was shot. So we haven’t had wolves on the island since then — not that we know of — until 2008. I emphasize not that we know of because there could have been instances of immigration from Labrador during that period and we wouldn’t have known about it,” said Blake.
Coyotes settled in
Coyotes, although not technically native to Newfoundland, found their way to the west coast in the mid-1980s, spreading east across the island until they were established all the way to the eastern Avalon Peninsula. Because they became established so naturally, they are considered a native species.
Sightings of the canines are reported fairly regularly, but Blake said there’s no indication the population is rising; public awareness could simply be increasing.
“It’s a difficult thing to quantify. All I can say is that it seems like our Eastern coyote harvest — that’s how we measure trends — is fairly stable, about 1,000, 1,100 animals a year. And that really hasn’t changed,” he said.
“The reality of this is that Newfoundland and Labrador is a very rural province, and we do live in the heart of a lot of wildlife habitat —whether that’s for moose or black bears in central or western Newfoundland, or Eastern coyotes. So it’s not uncommon to have wildlife interact with humans n that kind of a level, on that kind of a scale.”
The Department of Environment and Wildlife is asking hunters and trappers who come across large coyotes — those weighing more than the average 16 or 17 kg — to get in touch so testing can be done on the carcass.
“It is our desire to continue to monitor the existence of any hybrids and/or any wolf — pure wolf — that might be present in order to get an idea of the scale and range expansion, if any, of these animals,” said Blake.
In the meantime, he’s interested to see what ecological implications the hybrids could bring to the island.
“This is a new predator — if, in fact, it becomes established — and there’s a fairly logical assumption that could be made that hybrids will be larger than the Eastern coyote, but smaller than the wolf. How that morphology, how their behaviour, how their diet is all going to impact on our ecology is right now unknown.”