A new and unusual theory has emerged about the coyotes that killed a young Toronto woman on a Nova Scotia hiking trail 13 years ago.
Researchers say that on Oct. 27, 2009, when singer-songwriter Taylor Mitchell set out alone in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, resident coyotes had adapted to a limited food supply by learning how to hunt and kill moose — a trait believed to be extraordinary among these “generalist carnivores.”
Stanley Gehrt, lead author of a paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, said that with the park’s coyotes preying on such a large animal, it stands to reason they would be less inhibited about killing a human.
“When (coyotes grow) used to taking a 700-pound animal, and you have a single woman walking by herself … it seems perfectly natural to assume that they simply saw her as a novel food item,” Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University, said in an interview.
“Our argument would be that (the coyotes’) ability to survive … is tied to their ability to switch from one food source to another. And those (coyotes) were eating a diet completely of moose.”
Coyotes have been known to scavenge from the remains of dead moose, but Gehrt’s study found evidence the park’s population was actively hunting the animals — a high-risk strategy for predators that can get stomped on.
“At least one (moose) carcass located during winter coyote tracking showed signs of predation, and on other occasions live, adult moose were observed with fresh wounds consistent with coyote bites, in addition to coyote tracks leading to the moose,” says the study, which was supported by Parks Canada and the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry.
Coyotes in the park resorted to “prey–switching” because their typical prey, mainly snowshoe hare and white-tailed deer, were in short supply at the time, the study says. As well, the park’s unique ecosystem supports only a small population of rodents, which can otherwise sustain coyotes that have little else to eat.
Gehrt said it’s worth noting the park’s coyotes are not subjected to hunting or trapping, which means they don’t have a natural fear of humans.
Mitchell’s violent death was only the second fatal coyote attack recorded in North America. She was 19 years old at the time and about to embark on a solo tour to support a promising musical career.
The mauling attracted international attention and wild speculation about the coyotes’ behaviour. But Gehrt said he and his team determined the attack was similar to what would happen if the coyotes were after a deer.
“They had conditioned themselves to go after large prey, and this was something small,” he said.
Virtually all recorded coyote attacks are the result of exposure to human food. But that wasn’t the case with Mitchell. Of the five coyotes killed after the fatal attack, including the two directly responsible, none showed evidence they had eaten human food beforehand, the study says.
Gehrt stressed that the attack on Mitchell was related to the park’s unique ecological characteristics, which have changed over the years. The moose population has been reduced and the snowshoe hare population has rebounded, which means live moose are no longer on the coyotes’ menu.
“I don’t view the coyotes in Cape Breton as being more dangerous right now than any other coyotes,” he said.
As well, park staff are now less tolerant of aggressive animals.
“The Cape Breton system produces some novel types of behaviour, but it’s temporary,” Gehrt said. “The fact that we haven’t had anything like that again puts it into context. It’s manageable by increasing people’s awareness. We can keep the risk extremely low.”