Coyotes have definitely gotten a lot bolder, and some even say more aggressive. But statistically, they aren’t commonly involved in attacks on humans — especially those leading to fatalities. But back in 2009, a 19-year-old hiker traversing Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park was reportedly attacked by a pack of coyotes. Seemingly unprovoked, the strange and tragic incident left scientists baffled by Taylor Mitchell’s death. A first in Canada, the only other fatal attack in North America occurred in 1981 with the death of a toddler in California.
Other than that, there were no other documented cases to look to for precedence, which left many people perplexed. Typically hunters of small prey or opportunistic scavengers, they’re omnivores belonging to the Canis family that can eat almost anything. But people? It seemed a bridge too far for many in the scientific community, so they’ve been working on the mystery ever since. The investigation included both Canadian and American scientists, and they captured nearly two dozen coyotes between 2011 and 2013 in the area where the event took place. This allowed the team to fit them with tracking devices in order to monitor their movements.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Among other things, the researchers collected whisker samples (including from the coyotes suspected in Mitchell’s death) and fur samples from potential prey. The results enabled the team to estimate the recent diet of the coyotes, including whether they’d been eating food intended for people. But over time, they ruled out that they’d become more familiar with humans or their food as a possible theory behind the death. They instead found that the coyotes were mostly subsiding on moose, accounting for up to half to two-thirds of their diet. The same pattern appeared to hold true for the coyotes responsible for Mitchell’s death. With little seasonal variation in Cape Breton coyotes’ diets, it would appear they were primarily hunting moose throughout the year for food.
Researchers argue that the switch to large prey among this particular coyote population would likely have happened out of necessity. As habitats continue to shrink and humans further encroach on their living spaces, we are seeing changes among many species that hunt for survival.
“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,” noted lead author and wildlife ecologist Stan Gehrt. “And that leads to conflicts with people that you wouldn’t normally see.”
Unfortunately, it seems these interactions between wildlife and human beings are becoming the norm. If you’d like to learn more about the study findings, you can read them in the Journal of Applied Ecology.Whizzco