National Park Service


Date of this Version



PNAS March 13, 2012 vol. 109no. 11; doi: 10.1073


Living coyotes modify their behavior in the presence of larger carnivores, such as wolves. However, little is known about the effects of competitor presence or absence on morphological change in coyotes or wolves over long periods of time. We examined the evolution of coyotes and wolves through time from the late Pleistocene, during which many large carnivorous species coexisted as predators and competitors, to the Recent; this allowed us to investigate evolutionary changes in these species in response to climate change and megafaunal extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene. We measured postcranial skeletal morphologies of wolves (Canis lupus) and coyotes (C. latrans) from Pleistocene-aged tar deposits, as well as early, mid, and recent Holocene populations of both. We found few morphological differences between Pleistocene and Holocene wolf populations. Conversely, we found many differences in coyotes: Pleistocene coyotes were larger and more robust than Holocene populations. However, within 1,000 y of the megafaunal extinctions, coyotes are morphologically indistinguishable from modern populations. We cannot attribute these differences directly to climate change because modern coyotes do not follow Bergmann’s rule, which states body size increases with decreasing temperature. Instead, we suggest that Pleistocene coyotes may have been larger and more robust in response to larger competitors and a larger-bodied prey base. Although we cannot separate competition from predator-prey interactions, this study indicates that the effects of biotic interactions can be detected in the fossil record.