A gray shadow caught in the headlights on a rural road. A yipping howl in a suburban park. A startling sight on a seaside beach. From mountain forests to urban neighborhoods, Virginia has become home to a clever and prolific predator.
Meet the “coywolf.”
Admittedly, that’s not a name that trips off the tongue. Nevertheless, from a biological perspective, neither is it altogether inaccurate. Genetic mashups, howling hybrids, the coyotes that have spread throughout Virginia over the past 30 to 40 years do indeed bear a healthy helping of wolf in their DNA.
That’s what biologist Dr. Christine Bozarth found in a study she conducted, analyzing DNA from coyotes in Northern Virginia—animals that are mostly coyote, with “dashes of gray wolf and domestic dog,” says Bozarth.
The story of those hybrids, and how they got here, begins with an environmental tragedy. Before the arrival of European settlers, wolves were found in Virginia and throughout North America. But through habitat loss and the hunting, trapping, and even poisoning of animals regarded as both a fur source and a dangerous nuisance, wolves were extirpated from Virginia—and, by the middle of the 20th century, from nearly all of the contiguous U.S. except an area where a small number survived in the northern Great Lakes region.
But nature abhors a vacuum, notes Bozarth, and the coyotes that once were confined largely to a territory in the central/western parts of the country happen to prefer the partially cleared land that settlement and the growth of farms, towns and, eventually, suburbs created. And while they have been subject to the same kinds of eradication strategies that brought wolves to the edge of extinction in this country, coyotes have managed to thwart those efforts, instead steadily expanding their range over the past 100 to 150 years until they now can be found throughout North America, from Alaska to Mexico and West Coast to east. “They are absolutely everywhere,” says Bozarth.