Experts say images caught on trail camera can’t solve whether it was a wolf or coyote or a mix
Images recorded in early February of a wild canine snooping around a south-end home have generated some spirited debate regarding the animal’s pedigree.
Was it a coyote? Wolf? Or perhaps a combination of the two?
Likely the latter, says one expert, while stressing it’s next to impossible to say for sure.
“I can tell you it’s always hard to identify one from a photo,” says David Mech, a U.S. biologist who has studied wolves for more than 60 years. “It’s often hard to tell them apart even in the field, or when you have a carcass in hand, if it’s a hybrid of some sort.”
Differentiating between pure wolves and coyotes is easier, says Mech, provided you get a good look at them in daylight or hear their nocturnal noisemaking.
Wolves are bigger — 60 pounds or more for an adult — and “tend to have shorter ears and a wider, blunter nose,” he says. Coyotes weigh about half as much and sing in a higher pitch, with yips and yaps, as compared to the deep, drawn-out howls of their kin.
The two species can also interbreed, however, and photos can be deceptive.
Mech says the trail-cam shots captured by Algonquin Road resident Mike Carriere are quite sharp and detailed, but leave different impressions depending on the angle. “One makes it look like a wolf, and the other makes it look like a coyote,” he says.
Brent Patterson, a research scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, agrees the images alone aren’t enough to provide a firm conclusion.
“It is very difficult to identify the animal as a wolf or coyote,” he says. “This is primarily because the photos contain nothing to provide a sense of scale and as such it is impossible to determine the size of the animal.”
Patterson has studied wolves in Algonquin Park, which hosts its own particular strain of the species— a blend of grey (aka timber) wolf and coyote. Formerly called the eastern wolf, the preferred term for this animal is now Algonquin wolf.
“Although there was once a distinct species called eastern wolves, a long history of hybridization among eastern wolves, grey wolves and coyotes has led to a hybrid taxon that is evolutionarily distinct from other canids,” according to a provincial fact sheet. “As a result, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada believes that a new name, the Algonquin wolf, is most appropriate.”
This animal is classified as threatened, with fewer than 500 adults estimated to exist in Ontario.
The subspecies is bigger than a coyote and smaller than a wolf, but easy to confuse with either. “Proper identification requires genetic data as it is difficult to visually distinguish due to its similar appearance (coloration and markings) and overlap in size,” the province says.
Most of these Algonquin wolves inhabit the sprawling park from which they derive their name, but they have also been confirmed to exist in and around Killarney Park.
Mech says the visitor to Carriere’s yard could well be an Algonquin wolf or coywolf — the informal term for a coyote-wolf cross.
“It’s most likely a hybrid like an Algonquin wolf, but I can’t say for sure,” he says. “It’s very hard to identify some of these creatures without having the animal in hand or doing DNA work.”
For some reason, interbreeding between wolves and coyotes has been confined to eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S.
“We did some studies in the western U.S. and found if you forced it through artificial insemination it can work,” says Mech. “But there are no records of them interbreeding in the west and we don’t know whether they would ever try to interbreed there in the wild.”
While mixed bloodlines do exist in Ontario, there is some confusion and debate around the use of the word coywolf.
Mech thinks it’s a legitimate descriptor, noting scientists themselves have used it and it “appears in the literature,” while conceding it is “controversial.”
MNRF spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski argues, however, that there is effectively no such thing as a coywolf.
“People think a coywolf is a special hybrid,” she says. “It’s not — it’s just another name for an eastern coyote. They are essentially the same animal.”
North Carolina zoologist Roland Kays agrees, describing the coywolf handle as “an inaccurate name that causes confusion.”
Recent genetic testing shows “all eastern coyotes are actually a mix of three species: coyote, wolf and dog,” he writes in an article titled Yes, Eastern Coyotes Are Hybrids, But The ‘Coywolf’ Is Not A Thing. “The percentages vary, dependent upon exactly which test is applied and the geographic location of the canine.”
Coyotes in the northeast are “mostly coyote,” he says, “with lesser amounts of wolf (8 to 25 per cent) and dog (8 to 11 per cent). Start moving south or east and this mixture slowly changes.”
Sampling has established “there are no animals that are just coyote and wolf (that is, a coywolf),” and that some eastern coyotes “have almost no wolf at all,” writes Kays. “In other words, there is no single new genetic entity that should be considered a unique species.”
Instead, “we are finding a large intermixing population of coyotes across the continent, with a smattering of non-coyote DNA mixed in to varying degrees along the eastern edge,” says the scientist. “The coywolf is not a thing.”
Questions of terminology aside, Mech says more blending of wolves and coyotes will likely occur in the coming years in the eastern part of the continent.
“This hybridization is going to continue,” says Mech. “It could be we end up with the whole part of southern Ontario and Quebec with just hybrids. It’s hard to know, because this is an ongoing process.”
Proper wolves — the big ones, with the long, deep howls — should continue to thrive in the coldest, snowiest parts of Ontario, however, while yotes in their more southern range are likely to remain true yotes, according to the biologist.
“To the north, it is going to continue to be wolves,” he says. “And if you go far enough south, into the U.S., for example, you are going to run into pure coyotes again.”