Volume 97 Issue 8 News

Juniata Professor Conducts Coyote Research

by Jessica Ware

This year, two Juniata seniors have been assisting with research on the modern-day Pennsylvania coyotes as part of their capstone research.

The project is being overseen by Uma Ramakrishnan, associate professor of environmental science and studies. “The project is about looking at introgression and color variation of coyotes in Pennsylvania. Basically what that means is that we are looking at genetic mixing of dogs, wolves, and coyotes,” said Ramakrishnan.

“Hopefully (the study) will be published. That is the main goal. It basically is a study about finding out about Northeastern coyotes, specifically in Pennsylvania, and the origin of these coyotes. There is some data about it, like how they came from the Midwest. We’re also seeing if they are breeding with dogs, domestic and wild,” said senior Thomas Imbrogno, who is working on the project. “We’re just a small part of a bigger study, so I just know that they are going to continue this for a little while longer because it is a useful data source and a good project for seniors.”

“Coyotes are a problem in Pennsylvania. They moved into Pennsylvania in the 1930s and since then, the numbers have been increasing. It is a very interesting species,” said Ramakrishnan.

“The hypothesis is that the way they get to Pennsylvania is that they had a couple of paths. Some went the northern path to get to Canada and then went down. There was also a southern route from the Midwest in Pennsylvania. Along the way, they bred with wolves. The ones that bred with wolves and had wolf genetics tend to be a bit larger. The eastern coyotes, in general, (are larger) than the Midwestern coyotes because of all of this mixing,” said Ramakrishnan. “What we have found is variation in the measurements of the coyotes between the east, west and south of Pennsylvania.”

“There are different levels to this study. Our level is studying color variation and things, but we helped collect the data, so that they can do genetic analysis. It’s basically color variation in coyotes and how that matches the genetic analysis to show if it is more dog or coyote,” said Imbrogno.  

“With Tommy, I work on volunteer organization, data collection and analysis, and will be assisting in presenting our findings for this year at Liberal Arts Symposium,” said senior Sarah Fredrickson.

There are two other collaborators on the project: Dr. Vincent Buonaccorsi, professor of biology, is helping with the genetics portion and Eric Butler, an alumnus and assistant professor of biology at Shaw University. There were also a handful of student volunteers from the Wildlife Chapter.

The data collection has been going on for five years. “It has been a three year study for what we have been a part of, but others have been collecting data for five years. 2014 was the first year where they started to take photos, liver samples, measurements, etc. of the coyote. We are just going to be comparing all that data now throughout the years. We’re going to do GIS mapping, which is a computer program where you can show data in maps,” said Imbrogno.

Describing how the whole research process goes, Ramakrishnan said, “We have identified these locations where we can go and get samples. These animals are not actually being trapped, they are being brought in as a result of a state effort to reduce numbers. The students are actually doing the planning of the study design. They go into these areas as the animals come and take measurements, photographs, get locational data, get any other information from the people who brought it in.”

“The students will do the analysis and catalog the photographs, and then send that to our collaborators at Shaw University. For the genetics, we are collecting liver samples from these animals. Now that will be the next step, with Dr. Buonaccorsi and his students doing the extraction and the analysis. Then, we’ll write the paper together and combine everything,” said Ramakrishnan.

“We thought we would take the next step and look at genetics to see the proportions, to actually measure the proportion of the dog and wolf genetics in what we consider coyotes, then match it with other body measurements. So, we have about fifteen different body measurements that we have read about that are probably relevant to identifying that difference. The last thing we are looking at is color variation. We’re looking to see if there is actually a pattern in the color variation by region and is it any way tied to the genetics. Is it that those with a more wolf genetics have a slightly different color?” said Ramakrishnan.

When asked if they have found anything yet, Imbrogno said, “A dew claw. It’s rare for coyotes to have one, and we actually had one come in that had one. Princeton University, which was another university there, had their graduate students looking at dew claws and tongue samples. They left when we found it, but we actually got a sample of the dew claws just because it was really interesting to find. That was something different. One coyote looked almost like a German Shepard, but it has some coyote features too.”

“We also saw some color variation. We didn’t do a quantitative analysis with the color, we did a qualitative analysis. Now we are trying to change it and do a qualitative analysis,” said Ramakrishnan.

“This is an ongoing study, so next year volunteers will definitely be needed for data collection If you have any interest in the research, I highly encourage you to sign up when the time comes,” said Fredrickson. “It’s a good experience—you help out the seniors working on their capstone, you get some hands-on research experience and you meet some really interesting people along the way.”

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