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What are Coyotes Doing in the Big Apple?

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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.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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