Look closely for Point Reyes blue-eyed coyotes

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A blue-eyed coyote spotted on the Point Reyes National Seashore in November 2021. (Photo by Carlos Porrata)

Spring is the perfect time for a photo op on the Point Reyes Peninsula. This is the birthing season for many animals, including elk, bobcats and coyotes. The flowers are blooming and the weather is mild. And, if you’re lucky and use a zoom lens, you might see a piercing blue-eyed coyote gracing your photo album.

Sightings of steel-irid coyotes are sporadic and rare, so no one knows exactly how many individuals there are in the park or if their population is increasing or decreasing. But once in a while, a photographer captures an image of it. “Blue-eyed coyotes certainly appear to be restricted to the Point Reyes area, and in particular the Outer Peninsula,” says David Press, wildlife ecologist at Point Reyes National Seashore. “Which is a little surprising because there is a lot of movement with coyotes around Marin, even between Marin and San Francisco.”

The peninsula’s striking blue-eyed coyotes made national headlines in 2019 after they were photographed by Point Reyes photographer Daniel Dietrich, prompting stories in National geographic, Smithsonianand Dark Atlas. People have also photographed blue-eyed coyotes in other populations in Santa Cruz and Sacramento.

Normally, coyotes are born with blue eyes that turn yellowish brown as they age. So why do some coyotes retain blue eyes into adulthood?

“The short answer is we don’t know, but there are several fascinating hypotheses that need careful testing,” wrote James Brooks, a doctoral student at Kyoto University’s Center for Wildlife Research in an email.

In a journal article Behviour in 2020, Brooks and several colleagues showed that coyotes in areas with higher housing density responded more “boldly” to new man-made objects, such as cameras, in places they had never been previously. And seven of the coyotes their camera traps observed had a physical abnormality, such as black or brindle fur or white markings, characteristic of paper labeled “domestication traits.” While most purely wild animals have little variation in their fur and eye color, many domesticated animals – dogs, horses, reindeer, camels and cattle – do.

So, do blue eyes indicate domestication? Seven unusual coyotes don’t tell us much. In an experiment started in the 1950s that is still controversial today, Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyaev tried to see if he could create more human-friendly foxes through artificial selection. Over time, Belyaev’s friendly foxes began to show “taming traits” similar to those Brooks noticed in coyotes, such as multicolored fur. Multicolored fur, like blue eyes, tends to occur more in pets.

Some coyote populations and individuals have found an urban niche, and those that hang close enough to humans to be photographed may be disproportionately tame. “[M]everyone thought that urban environments might shape behavior similarly, that urban wildlife might be bolder, less reactive, less aggressive towards humans,” Brooks wrote, “and so we might expect that that she shows some of the morphological results that we see in domesticated animals.”

A second related hypothesis is that blue-eyed coyotes could be part dogs. Brooks and Press agree that more research is needed, and Press does not completely rule out the possibility of genes coming from domestic dogs in the family tree. Genetically, nothing prevents coyotes from breeding with dogs, and coydog pups can breed with coywolves and wolfdogs indefinitely until they are nothing more than a pile of soup canis. However, Callie Broaddus wrote in National geographic in 2019 that possibility is unlikely, as coydogs tend to have a variety of doglike characteristics, but not blue eyes.

And, finally: sometimes a new physical trait will appear in an animal. Each sexually reproducing animal is a little different from its parents: for example, each human has 100 to 200 mutations. It’s plausible that a coyote developed this trait a few generations ago and there’s just not enough reason for nature to eliminate it, especially in a world made so welcoming to coyotes by people who wiped out other competing predators. “There are all kinds of genotypes that are expressed in different ways in wildlife, and this is potentially just another example,” says Press.

Although blue eyes can be harmful to coyotes, it’s probably not too bad if the trait has persisted. And remember that mutations are a natural and important part of life – if they didn’t happen, every human and every coyote would still be a single-celled organism.

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