An Icon of the Wild West Becomes a Secret New Yorker

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A northeastern coyote in a New York City park.

An animal long associated with wilderness is thriving as a city-dweller: coyotes.

The canids showed up in New York state around 1940, and moved into the Bronx just 10 years ago. Slightly larger than their western cousins, northeastern coyotes, or "coywolves," are thought to have descended from western coyotes who bred with wolves as they expanded their range eastward to avoid hunters in the West.  

For the past five years, the Gotham Coyote Project has been using camera traps triggered by motion and heat, to capture images of the elusive animal in the wild. The team has been able to document coyotes in the Bronx, where several family groups have been established, and a single coyote haunting part of Queens. (There have also been sightings in Manhattan.) 

"Very rarely as a wildlife biologist do you ever get to study something happening in real time," project co-founder Mark Weckel said. "My colleagues and I have the opportunity to look at this emerging story year after year." 

So far one major mystery remains unsolved: how the coyotes get from one borough to another. In other parts of the country, coyotes have been observed using railroad tracks. But Weckel, who's also the manager of the science research mentoring program at the American Museum of Natural History, says it's not clear what transportation infrastructure, if any, are being used by the coyotes here. He says they're pretty strong swimmers, but more likely to cross a bridge if the opportunity avails itself.  

Still, he says, with so much wooded habitat there, it's likely a question of when, and not if, the coywolves will set up in Brooklyn and more broadly in Queens. 

The name "coywolf," though, can give people the wrong impression. While the coyotes do carry wolf genes that give them a bigger head and stronger jaw, Weckel says the animals are still mostly coyote.

"On average, about 60 percent of its genome can be traced to western coyote," he said, "and about 30 percent to wolves." (The rest of the genes presumably come from dogs.) 

A time lapse video made by the Gotham Coyote Project. 

You can see more about the coyotes and the effort to understand them on the PBS program “Nature: Meet the Coywolf."