Coyotes unexpectedly killed a human in 2009. Scientists now know why

In 2009, Taylor Mitchell was attacked by a pack of coyotes while walking in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Canada. The 19-year-old folk singer was about to start the popular Skyline Trail when climbers in the area spotted the animals approaching, unprovoked. Onlookers called 911 and Mitchell was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax, but 12 hours later, she died of her injuries.

This marked the first documentation of a coyote attack in North America resulting in a human adult fatality (in 1981, 3 years kelly keene was killed by a coyote on his family’s property), raising questions about whether it is no longer safe to co-exist with these furry mammals.

“We didn’t have good answers,” 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 statement.

But after conducting a multi-year investigation into the incident, Gehrt appears to have finally offered insight into the situation.

according to a paper published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, he, along with a team of wildlife researchers, discovered that coyotes in the region of Mitchell’s attack had adopted an unusual change in their diet. Instead of relying on smaller mammals such as rodents, birds, and snakes for food, they appear to be hunting elk for food due to extreme weather conditions forcing the former away.

As such, the team believes that these coyotes may have learned to attack larger mammals, such as humans, and are therefore more likely to kill people.

“We’re depicting these animals expanding their niche to basically rely on moose. And we’re also going a step further and saying that they weren’t just scavenging, but actually killing moose when they could. It’s hard for them to do. that, but since they had very little or nothing else to eat, that was their prey,” Gehrt said. “And that leads to conflicts with people you wouldn’t normally see.”

Gehrt is standing, holding the mouth of a coyote.  The animal appears to be quite tame.

Stan Gehrt with a captured coyote being tagged and fitted with a tracking device.

stan gehrt

Coyote Forensics

Before and after the 2009 tragedy, Gehrt’s project also detected a few dozen less serious incidents between humans and coyotes in the park. He and his colleagues even attached what are basically GPS trackers so they could document the movements of the animals and better understand why they were behaving in such surprisingly cruel ways.

“We had been telling communities and cities that the relative risk posed by coyotes is pretty low, and even when you have a conflict where a person gets bitten, it’s pretty low,” he said. “The fatality was tragic and completely off the charts. 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 both coyotes implicated in Mitchell’s death and those linked to other minor incidents between 2011 and 2011. and 2013. Then they collected skins. of a wide range of potential coyote prey, including shrews, southern red-backed voles, snowshoe hares, elk, and even humans; for humans, they collected hair from local barber shops.

Seth Newsome, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and corresponding author of the study, performed a specific isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen within all the samples.

Eventually, Newsome confirmed that, on average, moose made up between half and two-thirds of the animals’ diets, followed by snowshoe hare, small mammals and deer, according to the news release. In addition, the researchers analyzed coyote droppings, further confirming the isotope findings.

A gloved researcher collars a coyote lying on its side.

This is what it looks like to wear one of the GPS collar types, as done in this study.

Urban Coyote Research Project

Interestingly, they also found only a few examples of people having eaten humans. fooddiscrediting any claims that coyotes’ attraction to human food could have been a factor in Mitchell’s attack.

“These coyotes are doing what coyotes do, which is, when their first or second choice of prey isn’t available, they’re going to explore, experiment and change their search range,” Gehrt said. “They’re adaptable, and that’s the key to their success.”

Using those movement devices, the team tested to see if the coyotes in the park were only familiar with people. However, the patterns showed that the animals largely avoided areas of the park frequented by people. Instead, they preferred to walk at night.

“The lines of evidence suggest that this was a resource-poor area with really extreme environments that forced these highly adaptable animals to expand their behavior,” Gehrt said. Or, as the paper states, “our results suggest that unprovoked extreme predatory attacks by coyotes on people are likely to be quite rare and associated with unique ecological features.”

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