Dan Flores is wrong about the Pre-Columbian distribution of coyotes

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am quite critical of Dan Flores’s Coyote America, a book that has been hailed as a sort of definitive source for the natural and cultural history of the animal. The good parts are where the author talks about native peoples and their relationship and understanding of the animal. The bad parts are where he misrepresents the molecular research on coyote evolution, most notably where he contends the genetic difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is equivalent to that of humans and orangutans (page 27, if you’re looking for it). I’ll give Flores a pass in that he didn’t do his research for the book until after the coyote, gray wolf, Eastern wolf, and red wolf genome comparisons came out, and found that all these animals were as closely related to each other as humans from different continental origins.

But I don’t know of anyone who thought that coyotes are to wolves what humans are to orangutans. At best, we thought coyotes were to wolves what our species of human was to Neanderthals.

So that was my beginning of great distrust in Flores’s account of how coyotes evolved in North America.

I do remember one part that I thought might have been true, simply because it mirrors the way coyotes moved into the eastern parts of North America. Flores contends that coyotes did not make it into Southern Mexico and Central America until after European colonization took place. The clearing of the tropical forests and the introduction of sheep and goats made all of this possible.

This made sense to me, but then I thought, well, I should look it up.

It turns out that Flores was dead wrong about Southern Mexican and Central American coyote populations. A 2004 paper that looked at the paleontology and sixteenth century accounts of coyotes in the region found that coyotes were in the region before European conquest.

So coyotes have lived in Guatemala and El Salvador long before Europeans felled the forests and turned out sheep and goats. Their recent range expansion into southern Panama may eventually lead to their arrival in Colombia, and they will have the Southern Continent to colonize.

This book gets so many facts wrong about the evolution and natural history of coyotes that I do worry a lot about its impact. It is written as a popular natural history, so it needs to be understood in that vein. However, the author seemed to choose which scientific facts he wanted to present without looking deeper into the fullness of the literature that exists on them.

And as a natural history writer, I find such errors to be problematic, but I always find some way to make sure you know that I am not the final authority on any subject. Because I blog, I can show you my evolution in thought more easily. Books are far more permanent inscriptions. That’s why you will see me hedge about certain subjects where I know more research is being done, such as what the African golden wolf actually is or where dog domestication happened.

The challenge is to make natural history subjects interest and to make your interpretations fit the literature, both of science and of prose.

And yes, it took me a month to read Flores’s coyote book. I had that many problems with it.

Natural History

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