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Unformatted text preview: September 27, 2010 Mysteries That Howl and Hunt By CAROL KAESUK YOON With a chorus of howls and yips wild enough to fill a vast night sky, the coyote has ignited the imagination of one culture after another. In many American Indian mythologies, it is celebrated as the Trickster, a figure by turns godlike, idiotic and astoundingly sexually perverse. In the Navajo tradition the coyote is revered as God’s dog. When European colonists encountered the species, they were of two minds, heralding it as an icon of the expansive West and vilifying it as the ultimate varmint, the bloodthirsty bane of sheep and cattle ranchers. Mark Twain was so struck when he first saw that “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it” that he called it “a living, breathing allegory of Want.” And Twain’s description itself was so vivid, it inspired the animator Chuck Jones to create that perennial failure known to cartoon-loving children everywhere, Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner- hating fame. Yet as familiar as the coyote seems, these animals remain remarkably poorly understood. They have remained elusive despite fantastic ecological success that has been described as “a story of unparalleled range expansion,” as they have moved over the last century from the constrictions of their prairie haunts to colonize every habitat from wild to urban, from coast to coast. And they have retained their mystery even as interest has intensified with increasing coyote-human interactions — including incidents of coyotes dragging off small dogs and cats, and even (extremely rarely) attacks on people, from Los Angeles to the northern suburbs of New York City, where four children were attacked in separate incidents this summer. Coyotes have managed to elude much serious scrutiny by being exquisitely wary, so much so that even dedicated coyote scientists can struggle to find ways to lay eyes on them, not to mention hands. Dr. Laura Prugh, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley , said trying to survey a population of coyotes in Alaska was “like working with a ghost species.” To even have a chance of catching a coyote, she said, traps must be boiled to wash away human scent, handled with gloves and then hidden extremely carefully with all traces of human footprints brushed away. Even then, the trap is likely to catch only the youngest and most inexperienced of animals. Coyotes have remained so much in possession of their own secrets that it was not until this year that the real identity of the coyotes living in the eastern part of the country was revealed. Two separate teams of researchers studying the genes of coyotes in the Northeast reported evidence that these animals that have for decades upon decades been thought of as coyotes are in fact coyote-wolf hybrids. coyote-wolf hybrids....
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- Spring '08
- Coyote, Gray Wolf, COYOTES, Canis, Wile E. Coyote