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 dedicated direct-observation which takes 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!