An ecological detective story…
Beyond just their subject species and study area, ecologists want their work to have a big impact on science and society as a whole. But on occasion, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals too. That was the case with "Grace."
Was she a coyote? A dog? Some kind of hybrid?
Was she a coyote? a dog? some kind of hybrid? Other suggestions ranged from a hyena to the mythological chupacabra. All that was known was that the animal was suffering from mange—a skin condition resulting in hair loss—that she was under the care of concerned neighbors in Little Rock, Arkansas, who caught her prowling around their backyards, and that her fate depended on identifying her species. Under state law, native wild animals, like coyotes, could not be cared for by veterinarians, in which case animals in Grace's condition would typically be euthanized by state wildlife management officers. That is not what these "citizen stewards" wanted for the animal they had named and were trying to save.
Scouring the Internet for anyone who could, and would, help, Jill Martin came across Bob Crabtree's work on coyotes and called us here at YERC. Although buried under other projects and deadlines, the mystery of identifying Grace was an irresistible distraction. The pleading call for help coming from these folks in Arkansas was not easily ignored either.
So we put our skills and connections to work, providing a survey of distinctive morphological measurements: how long are her canine teeth? how wide are her molars? how thick is her nosepad?
How long are her canine teeth? How wide are her molars? How thick is her nosepad?
We also discussed photos of her with wild canine experts across the country—again, the results were mixed—and coordinated a genetic analysis that would provide the best answers to the question. When the genetic report came back, we interpreted the results—she was mostly coyote, but about 13% of her ancestry came from domestic dogs—and helped them make the case to the state that Grace therefore qualified as a coyote hybrid and not a pure, native coyote. Additional evidence, including her docile behavior like allowing people to put fingers in her mouth to measure her teeth, was used to successfully convince the state that Grace was a hybrid.
We then suggested Jill contact wildlife advocacy groups like Project Coyote for help with rehabilitating the animal, which led to Grace being accepted at a sanctuary in Texas. After the nine hour drive to the sanctuary wrapped in a blanket in the back of a neighbor's car and a couple weeks of treatment, Grace's hair started growing back and her behavior started becoming more natural. The sanctuary's owner even predicted that she would be recovered enough to join the rest of the sanctuary's animals sooner than expected, pointing out that she was starting to look and act very much like a coyote.
Grace's hair started growing back and her behavior started becoming more natural.
This good news was shared with Grace's many supporters—who now extended beyond Arkansas and the YERC office to include researchers and advocates across the country from coast to coast—on Christmas Day 2015. Today, Grace continues to thrive at the sanctuary as well as in the hearts of those Arkansas neighbors.
Even though YERC has many success stories from our work with agencies, universities, and other institutions affecting conservation policy in the natural landscape as well as at decision-making tables and within the interdisciplinary fields of science, we likewise value stories like these.
Here we also used the best available science to solve a real problem between nature and society, but this time it was everyday people, not a federal agency or other big institution, that called us for help. Here the impact of our work was also important to others, but this time it affected a single animal and one Arkansas neighborhood, not a population of animals or their ecosystem. Here our knowledge and skills and resources were also put to the test, but this time addressing the immediate future of one animal, not the longterm future of an entire species.
Although we generally seek projects with a bigger impact, the photos that Jill periodically sends of Grace recovering at the sanctuary along with the heartfelt thanks of herself and her neighbors are enough to know that solving this mystery was time and energy well spent. You can read more about this and other success stories on our new blog, the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center Journal.