In 2009, 19-year-old folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked by a pack of coyotes while hiking in Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park. He was about to start the famous Skyline Trail when climbers in the area saw the animals approaching, unprovoked.
Onlookers called 911, and Mitchell was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax, but died of her injuries 12 hours later.
This marked the very first documentation of a coyote attack in North America that resulted in the death of an adult human (in 1981, 3-year-old Kelly Keene was killed by a coyote on her family property), raising questions as to whether that it is no longer safe to coexist with these furry mammals.
“We didn’t have good answers,” Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State’s 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 crash, Gehrt appears to have finally offered some insight into the situation.
According to an article published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, he and a group of wildlife researchers found that coyotes in the region of Mitchell’s attack made an unusual dietary change. Rather than relying on smaller mammals such as rodents, birds and snakes for food, they appear to hunt moose for their meals due to extreme weather conditions forcing the former away.
Thus, the team thinks it’s possible these coyotes have learned to attack larger mammals, such as humans, and are therefore more prone to killing people.
“We’re portraying these animals expanding their niche to basically rely on moose. And we’re also taking it a step further and saying that they weren’t just digging, but they were 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.”
Before and after the 2009 tragedy, Gehrt’s project also noted a few dozen less serious human-coyote incidents in the park. He and his colleagues even outfitted them with what are basically 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 posed by coyotes is pretty low, and even when there is a conflict where a person is bitten, it’s pretty minor,” he said. “The fatality was tragic and completely off the charts. I was shocked, absolutely shocked.”
To arrive at their conclusions — that coyotes in Cape Breton National Park were feasting on large moose — the team first collected whiskers from both the coyotes implicated in Mitchell’s death and those linked to other minor incidents between 2011 and 2013. They then harvested fur from a wide range of potential coyote prey such as shrews, southern water voles, snowshoe hares, moose, and even humans — for humans, they harvested hair from local barber shops.
Seth Newsome, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico and corresponding author of the study, performed an analysis of specific carbon and nitrogen isotopes within all the samples.
Ultimately, Newsome confirmed that, on average, moose made up between one-half and two-thirds of the animals’ diet, followed by snowshoe hares, small mammals and deer, according to the press release. Additionally, the researchers analyzed coyote droppings, which further confirmed the isotope results.
Interestingly, they also found only a few examples of individuals who ate humans fooddebunking any claims that coyotes’ attraction to human food may 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 will scout, experiment, and change their search radius,” Gehrt said. “They’re adaptable and that’s the key to their success.”
From those motion devices, the team tested to see if the coyotes in the park just 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 lines of evidence suggest 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 findings suggest that unprovoked extreme predatory attacks by coyotes on people are likely quite rare and associated with unique ecological characteristics.”