The mysterious death of coyotes is finally explained: They are learning to hunt larger prey

Wolves are a nuisance to farmers and their livestock, but generally don’t pose much of a threat to humans — that is, until one tragic event in 2009 where a pack of coyotes attacked and killed a 19-year-old hiker in Cape Canada. Breton Heights National Park. This was the first time a coyote had killed an adult human and scientists were baffled.

Now, new research suggests that coyotes have been learning to hunt larger prey—as big as a moose—in response to fewer resources in the area, and that may be hunting humans, too.

The research wanted to look at why attacks by large carnivores are increasing in North America and what might lead animals previously uninterested in humans to hunt and kill one. Various suggestions have been put forward: that animals could become accustomed to humans, which would make them less afraid of meeting us, or that the poor sanitary conditions of predators would drive them to despair.

Despite these factors, coyote attacks are extremely rare. They are small, opportunistic predators, and attacking a fully-grown human just isn’t worth it when there are rabbits and smaller prey to catch. Even when assaults do occur, removing the bold and aggressive offender is often enough to stop them completely.

So why would a pack of wolves randomly attack and kill a 19-year-old woman in Canada? The researchers sought to find out by looking at coyotes in the area, including how they moved in relation to humans, and their diets, to understand human-to-human interactions.

They fitted 11 wolves in Cape Breton Highlands National Park with a GPS collar to track their movements, and analyzed samples taken from wolves and their potential prey to understand their diet. The goal was to determine if they were eating human food or their typical meal.

What they expected to find was a carnivorous diet rich in small prey and plants—instead, they discovered, coyotes burrowed on moose for most of their food. Up to two-thirds of their diet consists of moose, followed by deer and other prey, likely out of sheer necessity; If you’ve ever seen a moose in person, you’ll know that they don’t get along easily. Moose made up a major proportion of their diet throughout the year, indicating that it was indeed the best option available to them at all times.

With such confidence in taking down large prey, this may explain why they are more willing to take on humans as well.

“We’re describing these animals expanding their niche to rely primarily on moose. We’re also taking it a step further and saying that not only were they scavenging, but they were actually killing moose when they could,” said lead author Stan Gert, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Michigan. Ohio State, in a statement: “It’s hard for them to do that, but since they had so little to eat, this was their prey.”

“And that leads to conflicts with people you wouldn’t normally see.”

The study has been published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

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