In 2009, Taylor Mitchell was attacked by a pack of coyotes while hiking in Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The 19-year-old folk singer was about to start the popular Skyline Trail when climbers in the area saw the animals approaching for no reason. Bystanders called 911 and Mitchell was flown to a Halifax hospital, but died of her injuries 12 hours later.
This was the first-ever documentary in North America of a coyote attack resulting in human adult death (in 1981, 3-year-old Kelly Keene was killed by a coyote on her family’s property), raising questions about whether it’s not safe anymore with these furry ones mammals to coexist.
“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 a multi-year investigation into the incident, Gehrt seems to have finally provided some insight into the situation.
According to an article published last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology, he along with a group of wildlife researchers found that coyotes in the region of Mitchell’s attack had adopted 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 as extreme climatic conditions force the former to move away.
Therefore, the team thinks it’s possible these coyotes have learned to attack larger mammals like humans and are therefore more vulnerable to killing humans.
“We describe these animals expanding their niche to essentially rely on moose. And we also take a step forward and say that not only do they scavenge, they actually kill moose when they could. It’s hard for them to do, but because they had very little or nothing else to eat, that was their prey,” Gehrt said. “And that creates conflict with people you don’t normally see.”
Before and after the 2009 tragedy, Gehrt’s project also noted a few dozen less severe human coyote incidents in the park. He and his colleagues even equipped them with GPS trackers so they could document the animals’ movements and better understand why they behaved in such surprisingly vicious ways.
“We’ve told communities and cities that the relative risk that coyotes pose is pretty low, and even if you have a conflict where a person gets bitten, it’s pretty low,” he said. “The death was tragic and completely off the charts. I was shocked by it – just absolutely shocked.”
To arrive at their conclusions – that coyotes feasted on large elk in Cape Breton National Park – the team first collected whiskers from both the coyotes implicated in Mitchell’s death and those associated with other minor incidents between 2011 and 2013 connected. They then collected fur from a wide range of potential coyote prey such as shrews, red-backed voles, snowshoe hares, moose, and even humans – for humans, they collected hair from local barber shops.
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 of the samples.
Finally, Newsome confirmed that moose made up on average between one-half and two-thirds of the animals’ diet, according to the press release, followed by snowshoe hares, small mammals and deer. The researchers also analyzed the coyote feces, which further confirmed the isotopic findings.
Interestingly, they also found few examples of people eating humans groceriesand debunks all claims that the coyotes’ attraction to human food may have been a factor in Mitchell’s attack.
“These coyotes do what coyotes do, which is if their first or second choice of prey isn’t available, they’ll explore and experiment and change their search range,” Gehrt said. “They are adaptable and that is the key to their success.”
Using these movement devices, the team tested whether coyotes in the park were only familiar with humans. However, patterns showed that the animals largely avoided areas of the park frequented by humans. Instead, they preferred to roam around at night.
“The lines of evidence suggest that this was a resource-poor area with really extreme environments that forced these very adaptable animals to stretch out their behavior,” Gehrt said. Or as the paper puts it, “Our results suggest that extreme, unprovoked, predatory attacks by coyotes on humans are likely to be fairly rare and associated with unique ecological traits.”