It’s A Small World After All

A couple of days ago I visited the Presidio of San Francisco. I haven’t been going there regularly because the ecologist there is already monitoring those coyotes, but I went this time to check on the coyote I’ve labeled “Wired” — she had been radio-collared over a year ago. I heard she had moved in there and kicked out the previous family. This coyote indeed is a “toughy”. She is of special interest to me:  I had watched her wreak havoc on another coyote (who I’ve been documenting since her birth in 2015) and then pursue that coyote throughout the city for 6 months.

Second pair of coyotes in the Park

Initially I did not find the coyote I was looking for. Instead I found another pair of coyotes who looked surprisingly familiar. I’m trying to “place” their relationship among the coyotes I know. I generally can do so by watching visually for nuclear family similarities which I then hope to confirm with DNA analysis results.

I have been collecting DNA extracted from scat samples since 2008, to (among other things) help confirm my observations about relationships and movements throughout the city. The DNA analysis (Ben Sacks, Monica Serrano, et. al., UC Davis, 2020) has already shown that our present SF coyote population of 60 to 100 coyotes all came from just FOUR founding coyotes originating in Mendocino County: It appears that our SF coyote population is indeed inbred as I’ve noted and has not been augmented from the South.

Wired ran by — she’s radio-collared

When he looked at me I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was this Puff?

A couple of days later I returned to the Presidio and this time was rewarded with the appearance of Wired and her new mate! Wired hurried by with the male following close behind — she is obviously the leader of the pair. And then her mate turned around and looked at me. When you come across an old friend you haven’t seen in ages, in an odd place, your response might be, “Wow, it really is a small world!” This has happened to me with coyotes, and it just happened again! I could hardly believe my eyes! This appears to be the coyote I had labeled “Puff”. The label is based on his appearance and is used to differentiate him from his siblings when I write about them.

He was born in the spring of 2017 in a park that is not far off [I don’t state exact locations on this blog]. I’m including several photos of him (above) taken before he dispersed from his birthplace, along with photos of his mother and father on their territory there. I have DNA from these coyotes — I collect it right after it is expelled in most instances, so I know which coyote belongs to which sample. These will be used to confirm my visual/photographed observations. Puff has proved himself to be as much of a toughy as is Wired, having joined a brother to forcefully and viciously drive out a third brother from their birthplace in August of 2018, something I was able to observe. That’s how dispersal works.

It’s great to see Puff now paired up with a like-minded female (two toughies) and they appear to be the reigning alphas of their territory. It’s exciting to see these coyotes’ lives develop beyond their dispersal, something I’ve been able to do with only a handful of them so far. I don’t yet know what their relationship is with the other resident pair. They use some of the same territorial pathways, which I’m sure has significance for determining what the relationship is.

These two pairs may in fact be closely related. I say this, because otherwise, I believe, Wired and Puff would have driven out that second pair, but they have not. The previous Presidio pair along with their offspring were driven out. My continuing DNA study will confirm what their relationship is if I don’t figure it out beforehand.

So far, none of the coyotes I’ve been able to follow after their dispersal from their birthplaces has produced any offspring. Maybe Wired and Puff will produce the first 3rd generation that I’ll be able to keep tabs on! And there’s the possibility for a next generation in one other dispersed female I keep tabs on. We’ll just have to wait and see. Although I’ve watched yet another family through four generation (parents of parents of parents), there, the breeding pairs, one after the other, have remained stable and on their original territory the entire time — in fact for 13 years so far.

More recent movements within the city:

Among the four youngsters I’ve watched grow-up and then been pleasantly-surprised to see in other parks, are two that I’ve already written about, though I may not have used these labels: Scout and Hunter.

In addition to these dispersals, I’ve also seen family members travel large distances within the city to “pay a visit” or “check on” their dispersed youngsters (Maeve, Yote). I’ll soon be writing about a Dad who was just kicked out of his most recent territory and returned to where his youngsters were living. This male and his mate had dispersed from that territory (where the two youngsters remained), rather than the offspring (who did not leave/disperse) — it’s an interesting twist in things. Some family connections seem to be maintained over a great many years and over long distances.

By the way, Wired was in Puff’s birth-territory for awhile when he was still there. I don’t know if she is related to him, but there has been a long-standing association. I’ve also seen two other Presidio coyotes at Puff’s birth-territory. I wonder what the special tie is between these two family groups.

Endnotes: It’s very satisfying to have one’s visual observations confirmed by hard data (DNA). “Science” tends to accept only hard data, not visual data, though I have my photographs which indeed show connections. Incidentally, I do not use gadgets such as radio-collars or tags, which I think are harmful. I recognize coyote facially and can follow them that way, using sequences of photos to study any details. Except in a few instances, the coyotes I document are all labeled based on their appearance so I can readily know who they are.

Continued DNA Study

Continued DNA study of coyotes in San Francisco is proceeding forward!

Professor Ben Sacks of UC Davis initiated the DNA study of San Francisco coyotes when he analyzed DNA from the first coyotes that re-appeared in San Francisco in 2002 after decades of absence from the city. It is his study which showed that these early coyote arrivals in San Francisco came from Mendocino County. Ben had previously discovered that markers differentiated various geographical groups of coyotes, and one of those groups he was able to isolate and identify was Mendocino coyotes. San Francisco coyotes matched these.

The study was expanded in 2008 with more samples (which I collected from throughout the city) whereby Ben Sacks’ graduate student, Katherine Marquez, studied the connectivity of our population to surrounding rural populations (2011).

And now we’re into yet another round of tests from scats I collected over the last four years from throughout the city, with many defecations occuring as I watched, so I know “who” they came from as well as their family relationships, among other things. So we already have a lot of information about these coyotes. Ben has generously and graciously taken on the DNA analysis of this project, which he’ll incorporate into his teaching. The earlier scats will be used as benchmarks.

My two main questions include, “To what extent and how are the coyotes in San Francisco related to one another?” This will show movement within the city, and will show to what extent inbreeding has occurred. And, “Are all or most of our present population descended from the original Mendocino group, or have some trickled in from south of the city?” Stay tuned for the results later on this year.

Note that DNA from scat is a totally non-intrusive, non-invasive way of collecting information about coyotes, beyond my dedicated direct-observations which take a lot of time. A lot of what we find out in this DNA study will be confirming what I already know through hours of observation and documentation, but even more of it will be revealing new information and connections.

UC Davis’ DNA Study of Coyotes in San Francisco

click on image to enlarge

Back in 2007, shortly after I began my own dedicated urban coyote investigations and studies, I became interested in the possibility of using DNA from scat to find out more about our urban coyotes. In researching lab possibilities, I came across Ben Sacks at UC Davis and then Erin Boydston who would soon be working for the USGS. Erin confirmed for me that Ben was involved in such a study. It was Erin Boydston, who had been hired by the Presidio to document the wildlife in that park, who delivered the first sample of DNA (this was a blood sample) to Ben’s lab for analysis where it was determined that the coyotes were from Mendocino County. My timing was perfect, as Ben Sacks asked me to collect scat from San Francisco for his DNA study here. I contributed to the study as the *citizen-scientist* and a naturalist with a special interest in coyotes.

This poster above, with a summary of the project, has just finished being assembled by Camilo Sanchez who has been a part of the project at UC Davis. I’ve been given permission by Ben to post it here.

My own study of coyotes here in San Francisco — investigating and documenting urban coyote behavior including their behavior in relation to people and pets and getting this out to the public, documenting different levels of habituation and its effect on their behavior, and documenting different population pockets, densities, and territoriality in the city — something no one else has been doing — has been ongoing since 2007, hey, making it the longest running such study in the city! I’ve asked Ben if he might be able to do more analysis (I’ve already collected and vialed specimens from throughout the city) — specifically to determine what proportion of our coyotes are the progeny of those originally from Mendocino County, and how many might be immigrants from the South. Because of the structure of funding at universities, Ben told me that he can only continue this study if we find funding for a graduate student. Hopefully this will happen — and the study will be an ongoing one, continuing what was begun in 2006.

When I first started, it was Stan Gehrt — from Ohio State, who runs the longest running coyote study in the country — who spurred me on by encouragingly corresponding with me during my initial documentation work, answering my questions about what I had observed, sharing his incredible territorial diagrams (before they were published on his site), giving me citations, and then connecting me with a graduate student, who came all the way to San Francisco to decide upon and carry out a dissertation project. Interests change, and she decided to move on into journalism and videography. As a journalism intern, and with her background knowledge and interest in coyotes, she interviewed me for a Bay Nature Connections profile where she called me “a pioneer in the photo-documentation of the lives of urban coyotes, capturing their intimate lives”, a phrase I like and repeat when describing what I do!