Which coyotes are the ‘top dogs?’

By Dana Kobilinsky – Posted on August 17, 2020
Coyotes in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula consume more meat than those in the Upper Peninsula.
Credit: Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) Lab, University of Michigan

Coyotes in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan consume more meat than those in the Upper Peninsula, researchers found. That’s because coyotes (Canis latrans) in the Upper Peninsula are surrounded by gray wolves (Canis lupus), pushing coyotes lower down on the trophic pyramid and making wolves the top dogs.

“It’s interesting. As a wildlife biologist, people ask me ‘what’s your favorite animal,’” said Nyeema Harris, an assistant professor and director of the Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab at the University of Michigan. “I don’t have a favorite animal, just ones that are really interesting to me. And one I find really interesting is coyotes.”

That’s because the species can be found anywhere from mountains to cities, from the West to the East to the deserts of Mexico, Harris said. “It’s interesting to see their flexibility and adaptability in Michigan, which is a diverse state with a natural gradient of environmental conditions,” she said. The Upper Peninsula is wild, remote and open. The Lower Peninsula is more populated and its historical forests have been more heavily logged.

In a study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, Harris and her colleagues set out to determine the diets and microbial communities of coyotes in different parts of the state. They looked at three sites — one in the Upper Peninsula and two in the Lower Peninsula. They have now added Detroit to study urban coyotes.

“We spent a lot of time looking for poop,” Harris said, “but we had a good time doing it.” Hiking in the woods looking for animal sign, they collected the scat they found, determined which came from coyotes and conducted isotope analyses to figure out what the coyotes were eating. Higher levels of nitrogen isotopes signaled when coyotes were consuming more meat.

Coyotes in the Upper Peninsula were consuming less meat, researchers found, due in part to top-down pressures from gray wolves in the region. In the Lower Peninsula where coyotes were the “top dogs,” Harris said, they were consuming lots of meat.

The team also looked at the gut microbiome of coyotes across the sites. “We wanted to see if there were any associations between diet signatures and microbial communities and found a relationship,” Harris said. What the coyotes ate influenced their gut microbiomes, same as for people.

As coyotes expand across the continent, understanding their diets is particularly important, Harris said. While people often worry their pet cats will become coyote prey, “it’s more likely that they’ll eat your trash,” Harris said. “These kinds of studies allow us to have those conversations and allow us to promote strategies for thinking about coexistence and how we live with our wildlife neighbors.”

The team plans to continue collecting scat samples across the different populations along with camera trap data to help them answer more questions about coyotes’ diet preferences.

“We can document what foods coyotes are eating across their range and if there’s variation in the actual species they select and if that changes across populations,” she said.

Researchers collected coyote scat like this to conduct isotope analysis and learn more about their diets.
Credit: Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) Lab, University of Michigan


Episode 2: The Unstoppable Wily Coyote

They’re smart, they’re sneaky, and they aren’t moving out any time soon. Meet your new neighbor, the coyote, and find out why these cunning canids are on the rise in North America—and beyond.



They’re smart, they’re sneaky, and they aren’t moving out any time soon. Meet your new neighbor, the coyote, and find out why these cunning canids are on the rise in North America—and beyond.


AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Last year Christine Dell’Amore was on a glamorous assignment.

CHRISTINE DELL’AMORE (EDITOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ): We were studying the scat, or, you know, the feces of coyotes, and we were just walking up a hill, and all of sudden someone said, “Stop. Don’t move.”

BRIGGS: Christine covers animals for Nat Geo. She was tracking coyotes through a golf course in the middle of Washington, D.C.

DELL’AMORE: And I thought for sure that there’d be no chance I would see one. So I was astounded to see an adult and her pup just standing there in broad daylight looking at us, and, you know, our eyes locked for a few moments, and the sun was glinting off their backs. And it was this really amazing experience that connected you to the natural world, even in the middle of the nation’s capital.

BRIGGS: Christine thinks coyotes are at the heart of one of the world’s most fascinating, and underappreciated, animal stories. In just a hundred years, they’ve exploded across North America, from the tropics all the way to Alaska. That’s a long way to go on just four legs.

DELL’AMORE: The fact is that nothing has stopped them yet. And there’s no sign that they’re going to be stopping in their expansion.

BRIGGS: Well, that might sound scary, but to Christine it’s the opposite: It’s a success story happening right under our noses.

DELL’AMORE: The most fascinating part about the coyote story is not the fact that it’s expanding alone but the fact that it’s expanding despite our best efforts to wipe this animal essentially off the planet.

BRIGGS: The wily coyote. It’s not just chasing roadrunners through the desert anymore. [ music ]

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, and this is Overheard at National Geographic: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: the unstoppable march of the coyote. And what does that mean for people who don’t want a predator in their backyard? We’ll have more after the break.

The coyote trail also took Christine to Chicago. A scientist led her to a construction site there.

DELL’AMORE: And we had been tracking a female based on her radio collar, and we were in this really loud environment—there was cement mixers, and, you know, all these huge trucks beeping and people shouting—and she just appears out of nowhere, comes trotting across the asphalt like it’s no big deal.

BRIGGS: Christine says it’s the same in cities across the country. No matter where you go, coyotes aren’t far away.

BRIGGS: Have you seen any coyotes lately? Are they social distancing too, or is it business as usual for them?

MARY ANN BONNELL (NATURAL RESOURCES SPECIALIST): They are not social distancing. This is not the time of year to social distance if you’re a coyote.

BRIGGS: Mary Ann Bonnell is a park ranger. She works for a local government in the Denver suburbs. When she was a kid, coyotes were something she’d see in Saturday morning cartoons or maybe in a nature preserve.

But one day in the 1990s she set off for an early-morning run. It was just Mary Ann and her dog, trotting down a bike trail that people in Denver used all the time.

BONNELL: And up ahead of us, there were these gorgeous amber eyes that were glowing in the streetlight. And we got a little bit closer, and I realized it was a coyote and it was standing in the middle of the bike trail, and it wasn’t going anywhere. It was just watching me and my dog. And my dog went nuts. She was sort of like, I got this. I’ll take it. Mom, you just stay back. I’m going to take care of this whole situation. And I thought, That’s not a good idea. So I pulled her back on her leash, and I started kind of yelling at the coyote, and it kind of put its head down a little bit further, and then it trotted off down the side of the trail. And I was so—actually my hair’s still going up on the back of my neck as I tell this story—but I was kind of creeped out by it.

BRIGGS: So when you first saw the eyes, did it even register … BONNELL: No!
BRIGGS: That it was a coyote, or…?

BONNELL: No, I thought maybe it was a stray dog. It was just so, for me, out of place because, again, my experience was that coyotes were in more of these preserved areas.

BRIGGS: After that, Mary Ann says she didn’t see another coyote for a long time. But when they showed up for good, there was no missing them.

According to one scientific study, in 2004 Denver residents reported just two coyote sightings. Five years later, they reported more than a thousand. And not just sightings but also reports of coyote attacks. And who do people call when they’ve got coyote trouble? The park ranger.

BONNELL: This whole thing—helping people with coyote conflict—is an emotional roller coaster. You can’t make everyone happy, and some days you feel like you just can’t fix the problem.

BRIGGS: But she had to try. So Mary Ann made herself as accessible as possible. She plastered her phone number all over town. She told people, If you see a coyote, call me.

Sometimes the calls were grim.
RESIDENT VOICEMAIL: I’m calling you about a coyote attack. Uh, on a dog, small dog.

BRIGGS: Coyotes attacking humans is rare. But they terrify some people, and they can go after pets. They see dogs as competition and cats as food.

RESIDENT VOICEMAIL: One came up into my yard and tried to grab my dog. Thank goodness he was on a leash. So, he didn’t get him. But they’re—I see them so much. I saw a pack of five run across last week. So anyway, I thought you would like to know about it. I’m hoping somebody wants to know about it.

BRIGGS: Mary Ann did want to know about it. But just knowing about it wasn’t enough.

BONNELL: It’s not enough to just put out a sign. And that’s what I realized, is that this conflict needs a human—needs another person who’s compassionate, to talk about what happened and cry with that. I mean, oftentimes I would cry with the other person, especially if their dog was gone. Because honestly—I’m getting emotional as I say this—I can’t … that was just such a sad, horrible thing. And so you need this compassionate person to walk people through what happened, and have them share their trauma and their concern. And then, what are we going to do to change?

BRIGGS: So Mary Ann decided she needed to do even more. She needed people to understand why so many coyotes were hanging out in cities and suburbs. What made them move in now ?

ROLAND KAYS (ZOOLOGIST): You know, honestly, I think the coyote is probably about the smartest animal in North America.

BRIGGS: This is Roland Kays. He’s a zoologist at North Carolina State University who tracks the spread of coyotes. And he says to understand why coyotes are making their mark now, you have to go back to the Ice Age.

KAYS: You know, we had mastodons and mammoths and dire wolves and giant lions running around, right? In that world, coyote was a mesopredator—a medium-sized predator that is still killing things to make a living but has to look out for bigger predators that are coming after it. And I think that trait of being able to kill things, but also really being tuned into larger things coming after you, and being able to evaluate that risk—I think that makes them really good at dealing with people.

BRIGGS: Because just like in the cartoons, coyotes are almost impossible to snuff out. So even though the U.S. government kills tens of thousands of coyotes every year—and states and regular citizens kill even more than that—it barely slows them down.

KAYS: Removing coyotes is basically impossible. I mean, you can kill the coyotes, but the next year you have just as many again. And the reason is that they’re so mobile. They can move around so much, and there’s basically always a surplus from somewhere.

BRIGGS: People didn’t realize it, but over time we actually did coyotes a lot of favors. First, we killed off bigger predators that keep them at bay, like wolves and mountain lions. We cut swaths of forest and created more open habitat where coyotes thrive. And then, according to Nat Geo’s Christine Dell’Amore, we built the perfect coyote playground: the suburbs.

DELL’AMORE: And that opened up all kinds of new resources for coyotes. For example, they could raid gardens or fruit trees or bird feeders or—they’re very omnivorous, and they can eat pretty much everything. So the suburbs have really helped fuel their expansion.

BRIGGS: Add that all together and you end up with a continent covered in coyotes. There were some places that were hard to reach— like Long Island in New York or the Florida Keys—but coyotes made it. And now, they’re ready for continent number two.

KAYS: They crossed the Panama Canal somewhere around 2010 and have been marching further south since then. So it seems like they are at the doorstep of South America.

BRIGGS: There’s a thick stretch of forest separating the Americas. Lately, humans have been cutting it down and converting it to ranches. And that’s driving away big predators, like jaguars.

KAYS: I mean it’s the same story, different continent, you know? Coyotes moving into the space that humans created.

BRIGGS: And Roland says this isn’t just a milestone for coyotes—it’s a sign of something bigger, a shift that hasn’t happened for a long time.

North and South America weren’t always connected. For ages, life on each continent evolved on its own. Then, over time, plate tectonics lifted Panama up out of the ocean. And then, about three million years ago, a land bridge connected North and South America. Two worlds collided. And some species were wiped completely off the planet.

KAYS: And we can see it from the fossil record. All of a sudden, you had all these animals from the north—they were able to move south. And all these animals from the south, they were able to move north. We call it the Great American Biotic Interchange.

BRIGGS: So it sounds almost like a—I don’t know, like a bad marketing term, or—the Great American Biotic Interchange makes it sound like it’s sort of even. But it sounds more like a massive extinction. Is that it? Would that be a good way to …?

KAYS: It did lead in some ways to—yes, I mean, it definitely led to the extinction of a lot of species—but at the same time, over evolutionary time, it led to the evolution of a bunch of new species.

BRIGGS: So it was a chaotic time. A lot of things changed. And Roland thinks something similar could happen again. He calls coyotes the first wave of a not-so-great American biotic interchange: A world where animals that can live alongside humans dominate. And animals that rely on the rainforest? They don’t do so well.

BRIGGS: So, I mean, if they do make it to South America, and they … you know, we’ve heard the horror stories about how invasive species can cause, you know, a lot of chaos. Does it sound like this would be another instance of that?

KAYS: I think—I hope not—and I think not. And the reason is because they’re not the only wild dog in South America. There’s a whole group of foxes, and also something called the maned wolf, and the bush dog, and the short-eared dog. I’m hoping that, you know, between them and the other predators that are there, the prey species are all sort of savvy enough to be able to deal with coyotes in a way where, you know, coyotes are going to kill some of them, but they’re not going to really wipe them out.

BRIGGS: In fact, Roland has learned that this migration isn’t a one-way street. In Panama he’s also found that a South American fox is moving north, even overlapping with coyotes in some places. And that’s not all.

KAYS: In Europe now, there is a cousin of the coyote known as the golden jackal that has started expanding its range into parts of Europe that it had never lived in before.

BRIGGS: Roland says everywhere humans go, they create a niche for a certain type of animal.

KAYS: A mesopredator with a good sense of smell, that can eat a variety of food, that’s pretty smart. And that knows how to judge the risks that humans pose to them. And coyotes and their relatives are filing it all around the world.

BONNELL: Now that I’ve learned so much about coyotes, I often say to people, If I were a coyote, I would absolutely live in Denver.

BRIGGS: Around 2009, park ranger Mary Ann Bonnell still had a problem on her hands. Coyotes and humans were crossing paths more than ever before. And people wanted answers from the woman who had made it her responsibility to deal with it.

BRIGGS: What were people expecting you to do? I mean, what did they want to happen to the coyotes?

BONNELL: Well, inevitably people will ask for them to be shot and removed.
BRIGGS: Mary Ann says no matter what you think about coyotes, that tactic just doesn’t work .

Coyotes are too resilient.

BONNELL: If you don’t change anything about habitat or human behavior, there will be a replacement coyote waiting—sometimes even just in three days—to come and move into that vacated coyote’s space. So I call it coyote math: It’s one minus one equals one. It’s very easy math.

BRIGGS: Mary Ann needed to find a solution that didn’t involve just killing off coyotes, so she joined a big research project investigating coyotes in the Denver area. Mary Ann studied a technique called hazing.

BONNELL: And the whole idea is aversive conditioning, so that the coyotes can be trained to think people are a little sketchy and maybe I should not hang out where people are. So what I do is I will face the coyote. I will take four or five running steps towards it, with my arms up in the air, yelling “Get away!” as loud as I can. And that’s incredibly freeing as a government employee who sits through a lot of really boring meetings. I would love to haze coyotes all day. It would just be really fun.

BRIGGS: Yeah, me too. Mary Ann started teaching people when it’s appropriate to haze coyotes and how to do it. Her research showed it worked.

BONNELL: It’s effective at getting a coyote to move more than 10 feet away from you. It’s effective at giving residents a real-time tool they can use to deal with an uncomfortable situation

or a dangerous situation, and it empowers them to feel like they have a tool that they can use in real time.

BRIGGS: Mary Ann also started coaching people on how to avoid coyote conflict. Her tips were simple: Always keep your pets on a leash. Don’t let them go in the yard unsupervised. And learn how to haze a coyote.

Not everyone was into it.

BONNELL: Some people believe that government employees should be doing all the hazing. So there should be a hazing response team that—as soon as you see this coyote—that we’ll all appear out of the bushes and come haze the coyote on your behalf, sort of like Superman style. And that’s just not realistic, I think, because we … by the time we get there, the coyote is gone. People want to not do it for a variety of reasons, but the people that try it I think genuinely see results, and we saw that in our research project.

BRIGGS: Despite some pushback, a lot of people took Mary Ann’s advice.
BONNELL: One community I work with, they had 74 dog attacks in one year and last year they

had t wo . So they have seen a real change in the incidence of attacks against pets. BRIGGS: These days, Mary Ann is still helping people with their coyote problems.

BONNELL: I have these four simple truths that I tell people when I’m talking and when I’m doing education programs about coyotes.

BRIGGS: The first, second, and third are pretty straightforward. First, coyotes see dogs as competition for food and territory, so keep them away from pets. Second, they’re opportunists who can eat anything. Third, different coyotes have different personalities, so some cause more trouble than others. But Mary Ann says the final truth is hard for some people to accept.

BONNELL: And then the fourth one—and I think this is super important—is adult humans are difficult to train.

BRIGGS: Just as humans helped make the problem, Mary Ann says the solution also depends on us.

BONNELL: And so one of the things that is a struggle with helping people deal with coyote conflict is some of the things have to do with changing behavior—supervising your dog in the backyard, walking your dog on a leash. Maybe you’ve had a bird feeder for 20 years, but maybe now it’s time to take the bird feeder down. Those are all things that involve humans changing their behavior—and adult humans changing their behavior. And if you’ve ever tried to get an adult human to change their behavior, it’s a tough ask.

BRIGGS: But, she says, that’s what it takes. That’s the closest we’ll get to a quick, tidy solution that helps us live conflict free with our new neighbors.

BONNELL: You can change the attitudes about how people perceive conflict, and whether it’s something they can do nothing about or whether it’s something they’re empowered to change. So those are some of the things that I learned from my research project, and I still have people—this has been 10 years—that contact me and say, I had another coyote sighting! And “I wish we were still doing the project!” and “This is what I did to haze it, and this is what it did!” And so it’s really fun to be back in touch with people who’ve been involved in the project and feel like it really changed their perspective.

BRIGGS: And with that new perspective, coyotes don’t look so much like a menace, taking over our turf. They’re smart and curious, and they saw a better life for themselves in the suburbs. So they moved in. And they aren’t moving out any time soon.

More after the break.

music ]

BRIGGS: We have more tips about ways to avoid coyote conflict, and also how and when to haze them. You can find those in the show notes. We also have a link to an article Christine Dell’Amore wrote about coyotes, including her account of a close-up with a couple of tiny, fuzzy coyote pups.

Also, part of the reason coyotes are spreading south is because humans are driving out the jaguars. Well, there’s a Nat Geo Explorer trying to fix that. He’s working with farmers in Panama and Costa Rica to save the biggest cat in the Americas.

And Nat Geo has a whole series about how other animals are adapting to life in the big city: everything from a mountain lion crossing in front of the Hollywood sign, to whales thriving in New York Harbor, to a city in Brazil that’s become a haven for tropical parrots. You can find those stories and more in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Brian Gutierrez, and Laura Sim. Our editor is Ibby Caputo. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

Special thanks to Sharon Poessel and Stewart Breck, who provided research about coyote sightings in Denver.

Also, this entire episode was recorded from home because of COVID-19. So a very special thanks to my daughter and chief cat-wrangler Diana for keeping our pets away from my closet-studio.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See ya next time.

Want more?

Read more of Christine Dell’Amore’s reporting about coyotes’ remarkable spread.