If the climate hypothesis is true, then we should see similar changes in other Ice Age carnivores too, Meachen added. The researchers also studied body size over time in the coyote's larger relative, the wolf, but they found that wolf body sizes didn't budge. "We're skeptical that climate change at the end of the Pleistocene was the direct cause of the size shift in coyotes," Meachen said.
Another possibility is that humans played a role. In this view, coyotes may have shrunk over time because early human hunters believed to have arrived in North America around 13,000 years ago selectively wiped out the bigger coyotes, or the animals coyotes depended on for food, leaving only the small to survive. Stone tool butchery marks on Ice Age animal bones would provide a clue that human hunters had something to do with it, but the fossil record has turned up too few examples to test the idea. "Human hunting as the culprit is really hard to dispute or confirm because there's so little data," Meachen said.
A third, far more likely explanation, is dwindling food supply and changing interactions with competitors, the researchers say. Just 1000 years before the sudden shrinkage in coyotes, dozens of other species were wiped out in a wave of extinctions that killed off many large mammals in North America. Until then, coyotes lived alongside a great diversity of large prey, including horses, sloths, camels, llamas and bison. "There were not only a greater diversity of prey species, but the species were also more abundant. It was a great food source," Meachen said.
While coyotes survived the extinctions, there were fewer large prey left for them to eat. Smaller individuals that required less food to survive, or could switch to smaller prey, would have had an advantage.
Before the die-off, coyotes also faced stiff competition for fo
|Contact: Robin Ann Smith|
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)