Researchers Reach Conclusion in 2009 Fatal Coyote Attack

By author of The Realblog with Stephanie Mallory

Dependency on moose as prey likely led to fatal attack on Taylor Mitchell, who was hiking in a Canadian park

 A pack of coyotes killed a young woman hiking in a Canadian park in 2009. Image by Ronnie HowardWildlife researches have finally completed a study that may settle the question of why coyotes attacked and killed a young woman hiking in a Canadian park in 2009.

According to Ohio State News, the research into the motive behind the only reported adult human fatality from a coyote attack in North America is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

After analyzing the coyote’s diets and their movement patterns in Cape Breton Highlands National Park where Taylor Mitchell, a 19-year-old folk singer, was killed by the wild canines, researchers concluded that the coyotes were feeding primarily on moose instead of smaller mammals. Since they had adapted to taking down the large animals, they likely perceived the lone hiker as potential prey.

The findings essentially ruled out previous theories that exposure to humans or their food could have been a factor in the attack. Instead, heavy snowfall, high winds, and extreme temperatures created inhospitable conditions for small mammals that typically comprise most of their diet.

“The lines of evidence suggest that this was a resource-poor area with really extreme environments that forced these very adaptable animals to expand their behavior,” said lead author Stan Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at The Ohio State University who leads the Urban Coyote Research Project.

“We’re describing these animals expanding their niche to basically rely on moose. And we’re also taking a step forward and saying it’s not just scavenging that they were doing, but they were actually killing moose when they could. It’s hard for them to do that, but because they had very little if anything else to eat, that was their prey,” he said. “And that leads to conflicts with people that you wouldn’t normally see.” 

Gehrt’s detailed field study consisted of an initial investigation of the fatal attack, as well as a few dozen more minor human-coyote incidents in the park before and after Mitchell’s death. Between 2011 and 2013, Gehrt and colleagues captured 23 adult and juvenile coyotes living in the Cape Breton park and fitted them with devices to document their movement. 

They also snipped whiskers from the live-captured coyotes and from the bodies of coyotes involved in the fatal attack and in other human-coyote incidents to obtain dietary information. To compare, the researchers collected fur from potential prey such as southern red-backed voles, shrews, snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer, and moose, as well as hair from local barbershops that served as a proxy for human food. 

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Seth Newsome, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and corresponding author of the study, analyzed the whisker and hair samples to determine what the coyotes had been eating in the months before they were captured or killed.

The analysis showed that moose made up between half and two-thirds of the coyotes’ diet, followed by snowshoe hare, small mammals, and deer. 

“This dietary evidence was the critical piece to it,” Gehrt said. “Their diets changed because they’re taking advantage of whatever different food items are available at the time. We’re used to seeing big oscillations across the segments of whiskers depending on the season. But in this system, for these coyotes, we don’t see that – they flat line at the moose end, so there’s very little variation in their diet.” 

Samples taken from the coyotes that were involved in the fatal attack showed they had been eating only moose, “and their diet wasn’t changing,” he said.

“These coyotes are doing what coyotes do, which is, when their first or second choice of prey isn’t available, they’re going to explore and experiment, and change their search range,” he said. “They’re adaptable, and that is the key to their success.” 

This work was supported by Parks Canada, the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry, and the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation.

Additional co-authors include Erich Muntz of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Evan Wilson of Ohio State, and Jason Power of the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry.

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