Yup, that’s right- a coyote lunged at and tried to bite me Wednesday AM. Just to be clear up front, he didn’t connect, so I came away unscathed. And I didn’t see the final lunge and attempted bite, so the description comes from the guy I was riding with.
Side Note: Speaking of which, I know this story sounds a little hard to believe, so I’ll mention that I had a witness. If you’re involved in (road) bike racing along the Wasatch Front, it’s Dave C., a Cat 4 racer for the Skull Candy team.
Dave and I met at my place at 6AM Wednesday morning to ride up Big Mountain Pass*. I was apprehensive about riding Big Mountain less than 48 hours after riding White Rim, but it went fine. We had a few sprinkles on the descent, but otherwise dodged the foul weather.
*My usual Wednesday AM “steady date”, Teammate-Jason, bailed due to iffy weather and a rough night’s sleep (he has an infant son.)
We crested Little Mountain Pass, then began the long descent down Emigration Canyon. About ~1/2 a mile above Ruth’s Diner, we saw a car hit the brakes and swerve slightly to avoid hitting a Coyote in the road. I’ve seen Coyotes on or alongside the road in Emigration at least ½ dozen times over the past few years, so it wasn’t a big surprise. We continued down-canyon, but as we approached the coyote, which had stopped in the right-hand shoulder, we slowed to around 20-25MPH and swung out a bit more into the road to give it a bit of room. I was on the right and probably a bike-length+ ahead of Dave.
Everybody knows (or thinks they know) what a Coyote, Canis latrans, is. (Pic right = shot I took up near Kimball Junction last month. It’s my only photo in this post; all others are web downloads. As we’ll see, the encounter was not conducive to photography, even if I had had a camera with me…) It’s that little guy that looks like a small wolf and yips and howls at night. More specifically, it’s a wild predatory canine, and probably the only wild predatory canine most Americans have ever seen or heard.
Back when people first arrived in North America, there were 3* common, widespread predatory canines (though to be fair, the Dire Wolf, Canis dirus (drawing left), is suspected to have been primarily a scavenger, with a lifestyle similar to that of a modern Hyena.) One of those canines was a “recent” import, one was an “American Original”, and the last was sort of an American Original, albeit with some help from our neighboring continent to the South.
*Forgive me, I’m intentionally ignoring the Red Wolf, Canis rufus, here. Its range, history, evolution, genetics and the issue of its outright “species-ness” are just too big for me to tackle in this post.
Canines as a group originally evolved in North America. Wolves and domestic dogs evolved from canines that migrated to the Old World. Wolves then “returned” to North America via Beringia several hundred thousand* years ago.
*I’ve found estimates for anywhere between 300,000 and 800,000.
Tangent: The evolution of domestic dogs is way complicated, way fascinating and way outside the scope of this post. If you’re interested, check out this post, which Christopher pointed to a few months ago in his canine post. But there are 2 quick take-aways worth mentioning about dogs, wolves and coyotes: First, they can all interbreed, producing fertile offspring*. And second, specifics aside, dogs were domesticated (how many times isn’t clear) from wolves, meaning that your dog, if you have one, is more closely related to a wolf (pic right) than it is to a coyote.
*I believe 2 other Old World canines can also successfully interbreed with dogs. I’m pretty sure one is the Ethiopian Wolf… I forget the other at the moment…
About 3 million years ago, North and South America were joined at the Isthmus of Panama, bringing about the Great American Interchange*, and another group of canines migrated to South America, where they evolved into all sorts of canines, including the Dire Wolf, which later migrated back up into North America, probably around 700,000 years ago. But the coyote never “went” anywhere. It evolved from canine ancestors here in North America.
*Which was way cool and which I explained in this post.
Suspiciously coincident with the arrival of humans, most of the North American megafauna became extinct, including the Dire Wolf*. So when Europeans arrived, there were 2 widespread predatory canines on the continent.
*This jibes with its supposed scavenger lifestyle, as most of the large animals upon which it presumably must have scavenged went extinct around this same time.
Wolves often kill and eat coyotes* in the wild, and served to limit their numbers and range in times past. But over the last couple of centuries, wolves were nearly eliminated from the lower 48 states, and as a result coyotes have expanded their range tremendously over the last century, today ranging clear from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. In this respect, coyotes are one of those “privileged” animals who on the whole have benefitted tremendously from European settlement of North America**.
*Big animals often kill and eat similar, smaller animals. Wolves kill coyotes. Coyotes kill small dogs. Big dogs kill coyotes. Mountain lions kill Bobcats. Bobcats kill Housecats. And big primates, such as Humans and Chimpanzees, kill and eat monkeys. There are even mosquitoes that prey upon the larvae of other, smaller mosquitoes.
**Wolves may have experienced a similar expansion of range/relaxation of competitive pressure ~11,000 years earlier, when the Dire Wolf became extinct. And Grizzlies may have as well, following the extinction of the Short-Faced Bear right around the same time.
Interestingly though, coyotes and wolves sometimes mate in the wild, usually in areas where there aren’t a lot of wolves. And in fact there’s evidence that as coyotes migrated eastward across Southern Canada over the last century, they may have interbred with wolves along the way, resulting in Eastern Coyotes that are a bit bigger (and maybe even a little more aggressive) than Western Coyotes.
Tangent: Reading the above, one could be tempted to think of Coyotes in the same category as Rock Pigeons, Rats, House Sparrows or (German) Cockroaches, all of which have also benefitted from European settlement. But those guys are all exotics. A better similar example is the Brown-Headed Cowbird, another North American native who’s similarly seen its range expand dramatically following Euromerican settlement.
Back To The Story Already
The coyote stood and stared as we approached. When I was maybe 10-15 feet away, and expecting it to bolt, it did something completely unexpected- it stepped forward, further out into the road. I can’t quite say whether I held my line or swerved a titch to the left, but in the next fraction of a second, as I passed it by, I detected sudden motion toward me in my peripheral vision, and almost immediately heard Dave yell “Shit!” I felt no impact and kept moving. Dave quickly caught up and told me what had happened:
Tangent: The clear irony and weirdness of this event has not escaped me. Wednesday morning I got up early, put up a post going on and on about how great my ass looked, pedaled out of the house, and promptly had a wild animal attempt to bite same ass. Seriously, WTF is going on?
We talked about it on the way down. Dave wondered if it might be rabid, but the coyote wasn’t showing foam at the mouth, or snarling or anything, and it turns out that while attacks on humans are rare, they’re not unheard of. In fact over the last couple of decades they’re getting more common. Although no one’s been killed by a coyote in almost 3 decades, several attacks occur each year across the US. Most such incidents involve coyotes which have become habituated to, or even fed by, humans. The majority of coyote attacks on humans target small children, so if you have little kids, it’s a good idea to teach them about coyotes, and to tell them to fight back if attacked- running away doesn’t work* with coyotes; they can sprint up to 40 MPH and jump fences up to 8 feet high.
*Neither does playing dead.
Running might be inadvisable, but pedaling downhill seemed to do the trick for us; Wile E. failed to give chase. But I will be a bit less blasé the next time I spot a coyote in the foothills.