In 2009, 19-year-old folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked by a pack of coyotes while hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Canada. She was about to start the famous Skyline Trail when climbers in the area saw the animals approaching unprovoked.
Onlookers called 911, and Mitchell was flown to a hospital in Halifax, but 12 hours later she died of her injuries.
It was the first documentation of a coyote attack in North America that resulted in the death of an adult human (in 1981, 3-year-old Kelly Kane was killed by a coyote on her family’s property), raising questions about whether it was no longer safe to coexist with these mammals. furry
“We didn’t have good answers,” Stan Gert, a professor at Ohio State’s College of Environment and Natural Resources and head of the Urban Coyote Research Project, said in a statement.
But after a several-year investigation into the incident, Gert seems to have finally offered some insight into the situation.
According to a paper published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, he and a crew of wildlife researchers found that coyotes in the area of Mitchell’s attack had adopted an unusual diet change. Instead of relying on smaller mammals such as rodents, birds, and snakes for food, they seem to hunt moose for their meals due to harsh weather conditions forcing the former away.
As such, the team believes it is likely that these wolves learned to attack large mammals, such as humans, and are therefore more likely to kill people.
“We describe these animals as extending their niche to rely primarily on moose. We also take it a step further and say that not only were they scavenging that they were doing, but they were actually killing moose when they could. It’s hard for them to do that, but because they have so few So much food, if there was anything else they ate, that was their prey,” Geert said. “And that leads to conflicts with people you wouldn’t normally see.”
Before and after the 2009 tragedy, the Gert Project noted a few dozen less serious coyote-man incidents in the park as well. He and his colleagues have provided them with what are essentially GPS trackers so they can document the animals’ movements and better understand why they behave in such surprisingly vicious ways.
“We’ve been telling communities and cities that the relative risk posed by coyotes is very low, and even when you have a conflict where someone gets bitten, it’s very minor,” he said. “The death was tragic and completely off the charts. I was devastated by it — just completely devastated.”
To reach their conclusions — that coyotes in Cape Breton National Park were preying on large elk — the team first collected hairs from the coyotes involved in Mitchell’s death and those related to other minor incidents between 2011 and 2013. Then they collected the fur. From a wide range of potential wolf prey like shrews, southern red-backed mice, snowshoe hare, moose, and even humans—for humans, they collected hair from local barbershops.
Seth Newsom, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and corresponding author of the study, performed an analysis of specific carbon and nitrogen isotopes in all of the samples.
In the end, Newsom confirmed, elk make up, on average, between half and two-thirds of the animals’ diet, followed by the snowshoe hare, small mammals and deer, according to the press release. In addition, the researchers analyzed coyote droppings, which further confirmed the isotope results.
Interestingly, they also found only a few examples of man-eating individuals foodrefuting any claims that coyotes’ attraction to human food may have been a factor in Mitchell’s attack.
“These wolves do what wolves do, which is that when their first or second choice of prey is not available, they will explore, experiment and shift their search range,” Gert said. “She’s adaptable, and that’s the key to her success.”
With these locomotion devices, the team tested to see if coyotes in the park were aware of people. However, the patterns showed that the animals largely avoided areas of the park frequented by people. Instead, they preferred to roam at night.
“The evidence suggests that this was a resource-poor region with really extreme environments that forced these highly adaptable animals to expand their behaviour,” Gert said. Or as the paper says, “Our results indicate that unprovoked predatory attacks by coyotes on people are likely very rare and associated with unique ecological characteristics.”
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