Even if you’re not an anthropologist, a publication called the Journal of Morphology sounds intriguing. For example, one of its recent stories on the coywolf – the offspring of a coyote and wolf mating – is relevant to current discussions on the attempted genetic hybridizations of humans and animals to provide transplantable organs, on combining ancient and modern DNA to de-extinct extinct animals, and the ever-increasing discoveries of ancient extinct hominids like the Neanderthals and Denisovans that had sex with our human ancestors and contributed to our evolution.
“There is not one ‘coywolf’, there are various pockets of hybrids of coyotes and wolves in different parts of the continent.”
Lauren Schroeder, an assistant professor of paleoanthropology at U of T Mississauga and co-author of the study in the Journal of Morphology, explains in Phys.org that the ‘coywolf’ shouldn’t necessarily exist – the offspring of somewhat similar but still different species are generally infertile – think mules, the infertile result of a male donkey and female horse. Coywolves contain the DNA of coyotes, eastern wolves, gray wolves and domestic dogs – variations of the Canus genus that are close enough to have fertile offspring. However, this happens so often and among so many different variations and generations of coyote, wolves and dogs that there’s no standard definition of a coywolf. Sound like any other evolved species you know?
“Hybridization happened in humans as well, but we do not really know the extent to which it happened in the very distant past, or if it was something that only occurred more recently.”
Like humans, the more than 400 eastern coyote skulls in the collection of the State Museum of New York in Albany they examined had variations and mutations — extra teeth, dental crowding, significant anomalies skull shapes caused by coming two species significantly different sizes, like coyotes and wolves. Despite these and many more abnormalities caused by hybridization, coywolves have managed to survive, thrive and continually mutate in many parts of the country and into many kinds of coywolves. And yet … some don’t survive. Schroeder and her research colleagues believe that if they can understand how coywolves have evolved, it may help understand why some hominin hybrids survived and evolved around the world … and why some didn’t.
“With coyotes and wolves, you have multiple species that are reproducing and producing viable offspring. They are succeeding in North America. In the human model, you also have multiple species on the landscape. Different groups of hominins, like Neanderthals, humans and Denisovans did reproduce, hybridize, and were successful. It is a more complex concept of what makes a biological species. Different populations reproducing together, and producing hybrid offspring.”
It’s their diversity — their morphology, if you will — that makes some pockets of coywolves succeed. That is undoubtedly true of humans as well. Perhaps we should celebrate diversity more rather than attempting to suppress it. If not, we could end up one day turning the world over to the coywolves.