In 2009, a pack of coyotes living in Canada Cape Breton Highlands National Park killed a 19-year-old hiker in a seemingly unprovoked attack. This was the first coyote-related killing ever documented in Canada and only the second in North America, following the 1981 death of a toddler in California. More than a decade later, scientists now believe they have figured out exactly why the tragedy happened. They argue that the coyotes in the park had started hunting large animals like moose due to their limited resources, which made them more likely to prey on humans. They ruled out other possible causes, such as coyotes becoming more familiar with humans or their food over time.
The death of the singer-songwriter Taylor Mitchell end of October 2009 shocked more than one, including coyote specialists. Despite public perception, coyotes are not known to be aggressive towards humans. EEven in urban areas shared by the two species, the animals often avoid human contact.
A team of scientists in Canada and the United States is studying the possible circumstances of Mitchell’s death. Their investigation included the capture of nearly two dozen coyotes in the area between 2011 and 2013, which allowed the team to fit them with devices to track their movements. They also collected whisker samples from coyotes (including the animals implicated in Mitchell’s death) and fur samples from potential prey in the area, as well as hair samples from a local hair salon. By studying the nitrogen and carbon contents of these samplesthe team was able to estimate the coyotes’ recent diet, including whether they had eaten food intended for humans.
Coyotes generally hunt or scavenge small prey, although they are omnivores that can eat almost anything given the chance. But the team found that Cape Breton coyotes primarily ate moose, with the large animal making up half to two-thirds of their diet on average, followed by small mammals and deer. The same pattern was true for the coyotes responsible for Mitchell’s death. And unlike coyotes elsewhere, there was little seasonal variation in their diet, suggesting they mainly hunted moose throughout the year.
The shift to large prey observed in this population of coyotes would likely only occur out of sheer necessity, the authors argue, and it was this unique adaptation that predisposed them to attack Mitchell.
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“We’re describing these animals expanding their niche to basically rely on moose. And we’re also taking a step forward and saying it’s not just scavenging that they were doing, but they were actually killing moose when they could. It’s hard for them to do that, but because they had very little if anything else to eat, that was their prey,” said lead author Stan Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at OSU, in a declaration of the University. “And that leads to conflicts with people you wouldn’t normally see.”
Gehrt and his team have also collected evidence that deviates from other common theories about the attack. The park’s coyotes had a wide range, but they still tended to avoid areas that overlap human activity. They also moved more often at night during times of the year when humans were most active during the day. And only a handful of coyotes had recently eaten human food (including one of the coyotes involved in attacks on humans), further reducing the possibility of these animals spending much time near us. Finally, hunting and trapping are not permitted in the park, which means local coyotes may not fear humans as much as they typically do elsewhere.
“It’s a great space for these coyotes to live in and never have a negative experience with a human — if they have any experience at all,” Gehrt said. “It also leads to the logical assumption we’re making, which is that it’s not difficult for these animals to test to see whether or not people are potential prey.”
Overall, the findings, published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, suggest that what happened to Taylor Mitchell was a tragic but “fairly rare” event, the study finds say the authors. Jhe the conditions that led to its death are particularly unlikely to occur in places where coyotes have plenty of food and natural prey to eat, including urban areas shared with humans. At the same time, people visiting the park or other areas with similar environmental conditions “should be made aware of the risks coyotes pose and encouraged to take precautions,” they wrote, such as bringing a partner and means animal deterrents such as bear spray. Park managers in these areas may also need to monitor coyote behavior carefully and be prepared to take action sooner than usual, which could include shooting down aggressive coyotes.
Although there was reports of coyote attacks in the park in the years that followed, no further deaths appear to have occurred.