Article image

Fatal coyote attack linked to extreme weather conditions

In 2009, nineteen-year-old Taylor Mitchell was killed by coyotes while hiking a trail at a national park in Nova Scotia. This is the only documented case of a fatal coyote attack on an adult in North America.

Now, researchers at Ohio State University may have solved the mystery of why the deadly, unprovoked attack ever occurred in the first place. The experts determined that the coyotes had been forced to rely on moose (instead of smaller mammals) for the majority of their diet. As a result, the lone hiker was perceived as potential prey.

The team analyzed the diets and behavior of coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where the attack took place. The results showed that heavy snowfall, extreme temperatures, and high winds had created unsuitable conditions for small mammals to survive.

“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,” explained study lead author Professor Stan Gehrt.

“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. And that leads to conflicts with people that you wouldn’t normally see.”

Professor Gehrt leads the Urban Coyote Research Project which has monitored coyotes living in Chicago since 2000. He was contacted by media outlets for his insights after the fatal attack on Taylor Mitchell.

“We had been telling communities and cities that the relative risk that coyotes pose is pretty low, and even when you do have a conflict where a person is bitten, it’s pretty minor,” said Professor Gehrt. “The fatality was tragic, and completely off the charts. I was shocked by it – just absolutely shocked.

“A lot of people began wondering if we were at the front edge of a new trend, and if coyotes were changing their behavior. And we didn’t have good answers.”

Between 2011 and 2013, the Ohio State researchers conducted a detailed field study, tagging 23 adult and juvenile coyotes living in the Cape Breton park. The team fitted the animals with tracking devices and snipped their whiskers. These samples were also collected from the bodies of coyotes that were involved in the fatal attack and in other human conflicts.

The analysis of the whisker samples showed that between half and two-thirds of the animals’ diets consisted of moose.

“This dietary evidence was the critical piece to it,” said Professor Gehrt. “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.”

Furthermore, samples from the coyotes involved in the fatal attack on Taylor Mitchell showed they had been eating only moose, “and their diet wasn’t changing.”

Professor Gehrt concluded that in most areas where coyotes live, food of all types is plentiful – suggesting only areas low on natural prey, like islands and remote northern climates, would pose a similar risk for coyote-human interactions. Their survival in Cape Breton, he said, is attributable to their ability to adjust to their environment.

The research is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day