A coyote unexpectedly killed a human in 2009. Scientists now know why
In 2009, 19-year-old folk singer Taylor Mitchell attacked by a pack of coyotes during a walk in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park inCanada. She was about to embark on the popular Skyline Trail when climbers in the area saw the animals approach without provocation.
Onlookers called 911 and Mitchell was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax, but she died of her injuries 12 hours later.
This was the first ever documentation of a coyote attack in North America resulting in a human adult fatality (in 1981, 3 years old Kelly Keene was killed by a coyote on her family’s property), raising questions about whether it’s no longer safe to coexist with these furry mammals.
“We didn’t have any 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 statement.
But after a multi-year investigation into the incident, Gehrt seems to have finally offered some insight into the situation.
According to a newspaper published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, he and a team of naturalists discovered that coyotes in the region of Mitchell’s attack have adopted an unusual change in diet. Instead of relying on smaller mammals such as rodents, birds and snakes for food, they appear to hunt moose for their meals due to extreme climate conditions forcing the former to move away.
As such, the team believes it’s possible that these coyotes have learned to attack larger mammals, such as humans, and are therefore more likely to kill humans.
“We’re describing these animals expanding their niche to essentially rely on moose. And we’re also taking a step forward and saying that not only did they scavenge, they actually killed moose when they could. It’s hard for them to say that do, but because they had little or nothing else to eat, that was their prey,” Gehrt said. “And that leads to conflicts with people you don’t normally see.”
Before and after the 2009 tragedy, Gehrt’s project also noted several dozen minor human coyote incidents in the park. He and his colleagues even fitted them with what are actually GPS trackers so they could document the animals’ movements and better understand why they were behaving so surprisingly viciously.
“We had told communities and cities that the relative risk that coyotes pose is quite low, and even if you have a conflict where a person gets bitten, it’s quite small,” he said. “The fatal accident was tragic and completely off the charts. I was horrified by it — just absolutely horrified.”
To reach their conclusions — that coyotes in Cape Breton National Park were feasting on large moose — the team first collected whiskers from both the coyotes involved in Mitchell’s death and those related to other, smaller incidents between 2011 and 2013. They then collected fur from a wide variety of potential coyote prey such as shrews, southern voles, snowshoe hares, moose, and even humans — for humans, they collected hair from local barbershops.
Seth Newsome, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and corresponding author of the study, performed an analysis of specific carbon and nitrogen isotopes in all samples.
Ultimately, Newsome confirmed that moose made up between half and two-thirds of the animals’ diet on average, followed by snowshoe hare, small mammals and deer, according to the press release. In addition, the researchers analyzed coyote feces, further confirming the isotope findings.
Interestingly, they also found only a few examples of humans eating humans fooddebunking 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 start exploring and experimenting and changing their search range,” Gehrt said. “They’re adaptable, and that’s the key to their success.”
Using those musculoskeletal devices, the team tested whether coyotes in the park were simply familiar with humans. However, patterns showed that the animals largely avoided areas of the park frequented by humans. Instead, they preferred to walk around 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 puts it, “our results suggest that extreme unprovoked predatory attacks by coyotes on humans are likely quite rare and associated with unique ecological features.”
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