What are Coyotes Doing in the Big Apple?


Their howls pierce the night air in a declaration of wildness. This call, when it sweeps across the rolling hills of Appalachia or the Mojave flats, resonates with the romance of the backcountry. But when it's heard by someone walking down Broadway, it seems eerily out of place.

Opportunities to experience nature are not usually why people choose to live in New York City, but that's what many New Yorkers have been experiencing now that coyotes are taking their best shot at adopting the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Big Apple. This past spring the canines were spotted atop a Long Island City bar, strolling down the Upper West Side and through Battery Park, and even at LaGuardia Airport.

The sightings spurred something of a coyote frenzy in print, with articles appearing everywhere from National Geographic to The New Yorker. Not because this is the first time the species has ventured into cities—in fact, just about every city in North America has a population of coyotes within, including an estimated 2000 that now call downtown Chicago home. But if there’s a symbol of the concrete jungle, it’s New York. The fact that carnivorous wildlife is making its home on the mean streets is like taking down the fence posts of the constructed boundary between what we consider manmade and what we consider wild. If the coyotes can make it here, they'll make it anywhere.

Why are they here?

How coyotes have found themselves in urban environments has as much to do with us as it does with them. These new city slickers are not returning to reestablish residence in their natural homelands. In fact, while the species can now be found in all corners of our continent, 1000 years ago coyotes were only found in the deserts and prairies of the West.

Coyotes came to the big city via a path that we laid out for them, driven by the perpetual search for a niche to fill. Our development of prime coyote habitat around New York happened over the last 200 years, as human inhabitants first cut down broad swaths of forest and then, more recently, began to let some of that forest regrow. “We’ve created a landscape that—other than the roads—is perfect for deer, raccoon, fox, and coyotes,” Chris Nagy, a wildlife biologist with the Gotham Coyote Project, told mental_floss. “It’s a young forest, with lots of small mammals." And those small creatures are the perfect coyote food.

We’ve also done coyotes a big favor by practically wiping out their chief competitors: wolves. Through hunting and development, people killed off the local wolves and other large carnivores in the northeast. With the apex predator niche now left open, over the same time frame that humans expanded westward, coyotes expanded to the east, traveling north through Ontario, where they interbred with gray wolves, and later, dogs. This means that the coyotes that are making appearances in New York are in fact a different subspecies called the coywolf.

“There’s always this pool of roaming wanderers looking for an opening,” Nagy explained. As young coyotes go out to find a slice of land they can call their own, they go from the forest to the suburbs, from the suburbs to the city parks, and then, before you know it, you start to catch glimpses of them scurrying downtown.

For most of their existence coyotes have been the underdog, which has only made them more resilient, earning them a reputation for being crafty and versatile. “Their entire evolutionary history has been under the tooth of wolves, and then under the poison and bullets of people,” Nagy said. “They’re super smart, super adaptable, and they can figure out a way to make it work.”

The new neighbors are here to stay

Of course, not everyone appreciates the animals as much as Nagy does. “People will say to me, ‘they don’t belong here,’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘According to who?’ The coyotes are here."

Even though researchers stress that coyotes present minimal threat to people—and even possibly provide some benefits, by keeping rodent, deer, and goose populations in check—some suburban residents have asked for tighter coyote management, because of worries about their pets becoming coyote chow or suffering a rabid bite. And then there’s the fact that the USDA kills thousands of the animals a year, to protect ranchers’ interests.

But Jonathan Way, author of Suburban Howls, points out that the past 150 years during which most humans haven’t lived side-by-side with predators is the anomaly. We’re just not used to it because we haven’t seen it in our short lifetimes. “But it’s not the norm, and it’s not going to stay that way,” Nagy said.

“If you want to manage it, it’s kind of like putting your finger in the dike,” Nagy continued. “The resources you’d have to deploy to eliminate coyotes from suburbia—and to keep the populations of raccoons and small mammals down—it’s impossible.”

For now, New York City wildlife officials have taken the stance that it is we who need to adapt to them by following simple common-sense measures like keeping an eye out for our pets and not approaching the coyotes, which are, after all, wild animals.

Anyway, if we tried to prevent them from living among us, the coyotes would likely just find another way in. They have proven themselves to be a rather wily bunch.

Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds

Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.

There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]


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