In 2009, 19-year-old folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked by a pack of coyotes while hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Canada. She was about to start the popular Skyline Trail when local climbers saw the animals approaching, unprovoked.
Bystanders called 911 and Mitchell was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax, but 12 hours later died of her injuries.
This marked the first ever documentation of a coyote attack in North America that resulted in a human adult deaths (in 1981, 3 years Kelly Keen was killed by a coyote on her family’s property), raising questions about whether it is no longer safe to coexist with these furry mammals.
“We didn’t have good answers,” said Stan Gehrt, a professor at the Ohio State School of Environment and Natural Resources and leader of the Urban Coyote research project. said in a press release.
But after years of investigating the incident, Gehrt appears to have finally offered insight.
According to a paper published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, he and a team of wildlife researchers discovered that coyotes in the area of Mitchell’s attack had adopted an unusual dietary change. Rather than relying on small mammals like rodents, birds, and snakes for food, they seem to hunt moose for their meal due to extreme weather conditions forcing the former to stray.
As such, the team thinks it’s possible that these coyotes have learned to attack larger mammals, such as humans, and are therefore more prone to killing people.
“We’re describing these animals expanding their niche to basically rely on moose. And we’re also stepping forward and saying it wasn’t just cleaning they were doing, but they were actually killing the moose. moose when they could. It’s hard for them to do that, but because they had very little or nothing else to eat, it was their prey,” Gehrt said. “And that leads to conflict with people you wouldn’t normally see.”
Before and after the 2009 tragedy, Gehrt’s project also noticed a few dozen less serious human-coyote incidents in the park. He and his colleagues even fitted them with what are essentially GPS trackers so they could document the animals’ movements and better understand why they were behaving in such surprisingly vicious ways.
“We had been telling communities and cities that the relative risk from coyotes is pretty low, and even when you have a conflict where someone is bitten, it’s pretty minor,” he said. “The passing was tragic and completely off the beaten track. I was shocked by it – just absolutely shocked.”
To reach their conclusions — that coyotes in Cape Breton National Park were feasting on large moose — the team first collected whiskers from coyotes involved in Mitchell’s death and those linked to other, more minor incidents. between 2011 and 2013. They then collected fur from a wide range of potential coyote prey such as shrews, red-backed voles, snowshoe hare, moose and even humans – for humans, they picked up hair from local hairdressers.
Seth Newsome, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and corresponding author of the study, performed isotope-specific carbon and nitrogen analysis in all samples.
Ultimately, Newsome confirmed that, on average, moose made up between half and two-thirds of the animals’ diet, followed by snowshoe hare, small mammals and deer, according to the press release. Additionally, the researchers analyzed coyote scat, which further confirmed the isotope findings.
Interestingly, they also only found a few examples of individuals having eaten human. fooddenying any claims that coyotes’ attraction to human food could have been a factor in Mitchell’s attack.
“These coyotes do what coyotes do, which is when their first or second choice of prey isn’t available, they’ll explore, experiment, and change their search range,” Gehrt said. “They’re adaptable, and that’s the key to their success.”
From these movement devices, the team tested to see if coyotes in the park simply knew people. However, the models showed that the animals largely avoided areas of the park frequented by people. Instead, they preferred to walk around at night.
“The evidence suggests this was a resource-poor area with really extreme environments that forced these very adaptable animals to expand their behavior,” Gehrt said. Or, as the paper puts it, “our results suggest that extreme unprovoked predatory attacks by coyotes on humans are likely to be quite rare and associated with unique ecological characteristics.”