I recently wrote an article: "Black Panther Sightings in Alabama" that seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. The comment section was flooded with readers recounting their own encounters with these mysterious big black cats in Alabama and neighboring states. In keeping with the "rare sighting" topic, I've found another animal, also solid black, that is almost exclusively found in the Southeastern U.S. It's our own "nature's ninja," in a way. Meet the dark, mysterious and rare: black coyote.
Coyotes Are Everywhere
The coyote is in the canine family which also includes the wolf and domesticated dog. North America is the native home of the coyote where they are the most abundant large predator on the continent. National Geographic estimates that coyotes have expanded their range to 49 states, cover most of Canada and Mexico and they are now poised to enter south America. There are an unbelieveable 19 subspecies of coyote, too. Most coyotes are light gray to red or a mixture of black and white - a "salt and pepper" type coloration. In Alabama and surrounding states, we have mostly the Eastern Coyote. It's in this subspecies that you're most likely to find a solid black or melanistic coyote. Have you seen one? They're around - but they're stealthy!
Black Dog Genetics
The mutation that causes solid black fur in coyotes can be traced back to the domesticated dog. Genetics specialists from Stanford University completed a study in 2009 where they revealed that black fur is a genetic mutation first found in domestic dogs that they believe crossbred with wolves which, in turn, crossbred with coyotes. In fact, the coyote most common in the south, the Eastern Coyote, has a genetic makeup of:
62% Western coyote
14% Gray wolf
13% Eastern wolf
11% Domestic dog
Our Coyotes Are Unique Down Here
Like most things southern, our coyotes are "right peculiar," as my grandma would say. This is due to the high amount of crossbreeding found in their bloodline. The coyotes we have in the south are basically hybrids - although not the typical 50/50 hybrid. They are still predominantly coyote - but with a lot of wolf and some domestic dog. In fact, some experts say they shouldn't be called coyotes at all - but instead be called "coywolves" - a combination of coyotes and wolves - with the domestic dog genes factored in, of course. Remember, it's that "black dog" genetic factor that gives us our uniquely southern black coyote.
Have You Seen One?
Anytime you have a community of dogs interbreeding in one area, certain traits become more and more dominant. The same goes for coyotes. Plus, coyotes have the ability to interbreed with local dogs, putting more of the gene responsible for the black or melanistic fur back into the local population. That's why in some areas, there may be a lot of black coyotes and in some areas, relatively none. The Atlanta Coyote Project has collected data from all over the southeast and kept up with the number of black coyotes reported. In Georgia, they have found 2 to 3 black coyotes for every 75-100 captured which equals around 2% of the population. In Mississippi, however, data shows fewer melanistic coyotes present at only 0.5%. These numbers are likely to change quite often as more or less black dog genetics are introduced into the local bloodline - or as the black dog gene mutation pops back up. Genetics is like a roll of the dice sometimes, after all.
More Sightings or Just More Cameras?
While researching this article, I noticed that there seems to be a real increase in the past 5 years of black coyotes - at least there seem to be more photos and videos of them all over the internet. This makes me wonder: are there actually more black coyotes being born or do we just have more cameras at our disposal to capture them? The use of home security cameras, doorbell cameras, and trail cams has skyrocketed in the past decade, after all. I personally think it's a combination of more cameras everywhere and the fact that we humans are destroying more and more of the coyotes natural habitat each day. We're living in their territory or destroying it - so, naturally we're going to see more coyotes and wildlife in general where humans live. In the past couple of years, for example, some huge swaths of forest have been harvested nearby my neighborhood and I've seen more deer, coyotes, and other wild animals near my home than ever in the past. That brings me to the next question that I often see people ask who spot coyotes near their homes or neighborhoods: "are they dangerous?"
Are Coyotes Cold Blooded Killers?
There are only two documented cases of fatal coyote attacks on humans in North America: one adult female was mauled by two coyotes in Canada in 2009 and one 3 year old child died from injuries sustained from a single coyote attack in California in 1981. Domestic dogs are actually much more of a threat than coyotes. Statistics show that domestic dogs are responsible for 30 to 50 human deaths each year in the United States. In north Alabama alone, a pack of domestic dogs in Franklin County recently attacked two women in separate incidents which resulted in both their deaths. Children and small pets, however, are definitely at more of a risk to be harmed by coyotes - so always take precautions. Experts say that coyotes are not the cold blooded killers that they are often reported to be as much as they are sly opportunists and scavengers. The Urban Coyote Research Project says that most incidents of danger involving coyotes could easily be avoided with the following precautions:
▪︎Never feed coyotes or leave out food for them. Keep garbage cans covered and secured so coyotes don't scavage for food.
When they become less afraid of humans and more dependent on us for food, that's when things can get dangerous.
▪︎Don't let pets run loose.
Don't let pets out at night alone - especially small pets - and be especially careful if you don't have a fence in yard. Also put pet food up at night rather than leaving it out.
▪︎Don't run from a coyote if you have an encounter. Wave your arms, clap your hands, yell, or throw something at the coyote. But stand your ground and don't run which can trigger a predatory response in the coyote. 9 times out of 10, the coyote will run away from YOU quickly during an encounter and there's not a problem.
▪Use repellents or fencing if you are seeing a coyote come around your home often.
▪︎If you encounter a coyote that seems fearless of humans or aggressive toward people, report it to local authorities right away.
Back to Black
Back to the topic of the solid black coyote: since coyotes are mostly nocturnal, the chances of spotting one - especially a black coyote, are fairly low. As you can see in the photos on this article, however, daytime sightings are not unheard of and there are definitely black coyotes all across the south and a lot less of a mystery than "Black Panther Sightings In Alabama". Here are some links to recent sightings of black coyotes:
Have you spotted a black coyote or other rare animal? Have an unusual story to tell ? Send it to me! I may feature it in an upcoming article. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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