Coyotes Fascinate, Puzzle Researchers in Utah

Oct 18, 2012

A model of a coyote wearing a tracking collar, used to track wild coyotes.
A model of a coyote wearing a tracking collar, used to track wild coyotes.
Credit JENNIFER PEMBERTON

Dr. Julie Young is a wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center's field station in Millville, Utah. As one might guess from the yipping and howling frequently heard at the 165-acre site, Young studies coyotes.

One has to wonder why coyotes howl in the first place. What are they saying to each other, if anything? As it turns out, Young and her team of researchers has pondered the same question and are still vexed by the mystery.

"We're trying to learn. We had a study going on. Like I said, we recorded howls for a year, and we have a weather station on site, so we're trying to look at correlations between weather patterns and howling and if there's any association there. We had that student that looked to see if there's any correlation between human interaction and howling, and there's not. So we're still trying to learn. There's been some other studies with wild coyotes, and it's just really hard. Other than knowing it's a long-distance communication tool, we're not really sure what kind of starts it or if there is a particular cue. It is typically, though, one that once one starts, the rest chime in."

Howling aside, coyotes are an alluring subject of study for researchers. Sharon Poessel is a PhD student at Utah State University, and she is studying the recent trend of coyotes moving into urban areas such as Denver.

"You'll see some pens built out. Some of them are built to simulate an urban environment, and some are built out to be a natural environment so they have plants and trees and shrubs. The urban environment pens, we just built some wooden structures and put some trash cans and some lights in there, trying to make it look like a city, sort of. I'm just testing to see which pen a coyote would choose, if he would choose the urban or the natural pen."

Poessel theorized early on that the coyotes might simply favor environments with more food, but oddly, that logic hasn't held true.

"Preliminary results of that are showing that coyotes are not affected by food. Once they pick a pen they like, that's the one they stay in. I only have two more animals left, then I can analyze all the data, so I'm not sure yet why they pick that pen over the others. I'm hoping it's not because of where the pens are in relation to the other coyotes surrounding them. Don't know. Don't know yet."

Young says the station's ability to facilitate projects like Poessel's is what draws researchers from around the world.

"I don't know if you met the two French interns. We had the student this summer that did the howling experiment, and he was from Exeter in England. We have a student that works here from the University of Chicago. So we have people come from all over to do stuff because we're really the only—that I know of—the only captive coyote facility that focuses on research."

It's clear that coyotes, at once beloved and bemoaned, are animals of unique intelligence. And while there are clear benefits to studying them, Young wants to make sure their captivity isn't in vain.

"For me, my biggest concern is making sure that when people say, 'Well, why does this place exist?' we can justify it. And I also have a rule that every coyote needs to be used on a study every year—otherwise, why are we keeping them in captivity? So to me that's the biggest issue, but I can make that my biggest issue because I'm a research scientist, and I have this amazing staff that takes care of the animal welfare."