By Jyoti Madhusoodanan, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Coyotes, familiar denizens of field and hill, seem to be developing a taste for seafood, including elephant seal carcasses.
Preliminary data from UC Santa Cruz researchers suggest that ancient coyotes that roamed the Central Coast long ago rarely got their food from the sea. A graduate student in UCSC biologist Paul Koch's lab, Rachel Reid, investigated the diets of those animals and modern-day coyotes by comparing fossil bones and recent excrement samples from several sites in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
Despite evidence of elephant seals at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing 2,000 years ago, the fossil remains suggest coyotes hardly ever snacked on young seals or even fish, according to Reid, who recently presented the data at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Los Angeles.
Reid conducted much of her research at the NRS's Año Nuevo Island Reserve, located off the San Mateo County coast. Her coyote study was supported by a Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant, awarded by the NRS to UC graduate students conducting research at NRS reserves.
"We're just getting a hint of how coyotes behaved in the past," said Koch, dean of the Physical and Biological Sciences Department at UCSC.
Coyotes have never been fussy eaters -- one reason their populations have been expanding across the country. The omnivores have been known to devour pets, small mammals, snakes -- and even rubbish. Since marine mammal carcasses and dead fish have been washing ashore for eons, it isn't clear why ancient coyotes might have stayed away from them.
"We don't know for sure why coyotes behaved that way, but one possibility is grizzly bears," Reid said. Hunters or fishermen living along the coast, she added, may have been another reason.
Grizzlies in other parts of the world relish salmon and seafood. But their appetite for livestock caused them to be hunted to extinction. Although the grizzly is the Golden State's official state animal and adorns the state flag, the last California grizzly was killed in Tulare County in 1922. So now, the theory goes, coyotes may be taking advantage of the coast while it is clear.
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