The Return of a Canid Apex Predator — Coyotes on Kiawah

Coyotes are grayish-brown often with reddish tinges.  Weighing 20-40 pounds, they resemble a medium-sized dog. They are omnivorous and will eat a variety of food items, including deer, rabbits, rodents, insects, berries, and acorns. Although it is considered rare to find coyotes on Kiawah, sightings have increased over the past few years.

The Kootenay and Flathead Tribes of the Western Plateau included the Coyote in their creation folklore and stories, portraying the wiley coyote as a superhero and savior. The Coyote, a highly adaptable creature, has maintained a reputation for its intelligence and crafty ways in much of American culture as well evidenced by Warner Brothers’ still popular cartoons.  This adaptability goes beyond image, and has created much debate among the scientific community, as the fossil record shows a great deal of variation as the animals’ morphology and behavior changed in response to various conditions.

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The modern Coyote is thought to have originated in the open plateaus, deserts and savannahs of the western United States, its range fluctuating with varying environmental conditions.  The exact environmental conditions causing the fluctuations are not fully understood, but science points towards predator-prey and predator-predator interactions to be the main factors, not climate change.  Pack-hunting wolves and Man are thought to be the two main components in shaping the Coyote.  The Pre-European United States saw wolves along its periphery holding the majority of the coyote population to its arid homeland.  Interestingly, the Coyote’s DNA is found in many wolf populations, including the Red Wolves of the Southeast and Grey Wolves of the North, suggesting the Coyote as a genetic buffer between populations and adding to its ability to change regularly, beneficial hybridization occurred.  Their cluttered DNA is evident in the 19 recognized subspecies, 16 of which live in the US.

Soon after European arrival and shaping of the US, Coyote distribution began to shift rapidly as pack-hunting, social wolves were removed, leaving the solitary Coyote to wander without the attention their grouped cousins received.  The expansion is in agreement with modern studies, showing that removal of one apex predator has dramatic top-down effects on other predator species, as well as prey species. Currently, Coyotes are found in every mainland state of the US.

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Coyotes were first spotted in South Carolina in 1978.  The South Carolina population is thought to be a result of the animals’ natural eastward migration and illegal imports used by houndsmen in the training of their dogs and for sport on private hunting grounds.  They have currently expanded their range to include every county of South Carolina.  Their existence within the state is a politically charged point, as the effects of Coyotes are often economic in nature as they often feed on livestock and reduce the hunters’ prized White-tailed Deer and small game populations.  Any visitor or resident to Kiawah knows that we have a healthy population of deer, something that probably helped in the Coyotes’ decision to come here.  Understanding of the exact relationship among other predators such as bobcat and fox is somewhat inadequate.  The small amount of research, mostly conducted in rural uninhabited areas, hints at little evidence of large scale behavioral changes among these groups.  Kiawah will provide a unique location to examine these interactions among the well studied bobcat.

There have been no Coyote related injuries in South Carolina and the animals are not considered a major vector for disease.  If you spot a Coyote on Kiawah, please contact The Nature Center, or our Kiawah Town Biologists (at coyote@wildlifeatkiawah.com) and let us know the location and time it was seen.

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Photos of a Coyote at Cassique taken by Kiawah Resident, Brady Johnson.

By Michael Frees, Naturalist

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Environment
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