Prey switch blamed for death of woman mauled by coyotes

Halifax –

A new and unusual theory has emerged about the coyote that killed a young Toronto woman on a Nova Scotia hiking trail 13 years ago.

When singer-songwriter Taylor Mitchell traveled alone to Cape Breton Highlands National Park on Oct. 27, 2009, Aboriginal coyotes had learned how to hunt, researchers said. Killing moose to adapt to limited food supplies – a trait believed to be unusual among these “generalist carnivores”.

Because coyotes in the park prey on such large animals, it stands to reason that they would not be so prudish about killing humans, said Stanley Geert, lead author of a paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

“When (coyotes grow up) used to eating a 700-pound animal and you have a woman walking alone … it seems natural to assume they’re just seeing her as a novelty food Yes,” Professor Gehrt said. Ohio State University said in an interview.

“Our contention is that (coyotes) viability … has to do with their ability to switch from one food source to another. And those (coyotes) feed entirely on moose.”

Coyotes have been known to feed on the remains of dead moose, but Gelt’s research found evidence that the park’s population is actively hunting the animals — a high-risk predator tactic that can result in being trampled to death .

“During winter coyote tracking, at least one (moose) carcass was found showing signs of predation, and in other live cases, fresh wounds consistent with coyote bites were observed on adult moose, in addition to the coyote footprints,” said 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 snow rabbits and white-tailed deer, were in short supply at the time, the study said. Additionally, the park’s unique ecosystem supports only a handful of rodents that could otherwise sustain coyotes with no other food to eat.

Notably, the coyotes in the park were not hunted or trapped, meaning they have no innate fear of humans, Gehrt said.

Mitchell’s violent death was only the second deadly coyote attack recorded in North America. She was 19 at the time and was about to embark on a solo tour to support her promising music career.

The mauling attracted international attention and wild speculation about the Coyote’s behavior. But Gelt said he and his team determined the attack was similar to what happens when coyotes go after deer.

“They’re used to going after big game, and this is a small thing,” he said.

Virtually all documented coyote attacks have been the result of exposure to human food. But that’s not the case with Mitchell. Of the five coyotes who died after the fatal attack, including the two directly responsible, none showed evidence they had eaten human food beforehand, the study said.

Geert emphasized that the attack on Mitchell was linked to the park’s unique ecological features, which have changed over the years. Fewer moose and snow hare numbers have rebounded, meaning coyotes no longer have live moose on their menus.

“I don’t think the coyotes in Cape Breton are more dangerous now than any other coyote,” he said.

Likewise, park staff are now less tolerant of aggressive animals.

“The Cape Breton system produced some novel behavior, but it was temporary,” Geert said. “The fact that we haven’t had another incident like this speaks to that. It’s manageable by raising awareness. We can keep the risk very low.”

The Canadian Press report was first published on December 15, 2022.

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