The wolf once roamed the great deciduous forests of eastern North America but was driven into hiding as Europeans settled the Canadian and American colonies and felled forests to make way for farms and pastures. The wolves ventured out of the surrounding woods to take an occasional lamb or calf, so it seemed necessary to eradicate the predator.
Not able to coexist with the settlers and their guns and traps, the eastern wolf retreated north from the more populated American colonies to concentrate in the Great Lakes region and southern Canada in a strip stretching from southeastern Manitoba eastward to Labrador. In this region, they are variously referred to as “eastern timber,” “Great Lakes,” or “Algonquin” wolves. The Algonquin wolves of Ontario are somewhat smaller than those found around the Great Lakes and, at around 200 individuals, are a threatened species.
To the west, despite efforts to eradicate the western coyote in the ranchlands of the prairies, Canis latrans held on and gradually made its way eastward. Adaptable and clever, or as Dan Bogan describes them in his article “Rise of the Eastern Coyote,” in the New York State Conservationist, “explorers and opportunists,” the coyote learned to co-exist with humans, primarily by being elusive and feeding on small mammals, pet food left outside, and sometimes the pets themselves as it moved through the landscape. Entering urban areas, they quickly became nocturnal to minimize contact with humans.
The coyotes continued eastward, occupying lands vacated by the wolf. As Bogan explains, those moving across southern Canada north of the Great Lakes eventually encountered the remaining communities of Canis lycaon, including the relatively large concentration of eastern wolves in and around the protected area of Algonquin Provincial Park. It’s thought that the initial interbreeding of coyote and eastern wolf most likely occurred here, resulting in Canis latrans “var.”, popularly called the “coywolf.”
Described as particularly susceptible to hybridization, the eastern wolf, reduced in population, saw the coyote as a potential mate rather than an interloper. Their cousin, the gray wolf (Canis lupus), although coincident with coyote in the northwest, rarely hybridizes with Canis latrans. This may be due in part to the evolutionary relationship of the three canids—the gray wolf, Eurasian in origin, separated from the Canidae line about 2 million years ago, while the coyote and eastern wolf, endemic to America, had a common Canidae ancestor as recently as 150,000 – 300,000 years ago. But in addition to the more distant relationship, the gray wolf is larger and more specialized, hunting larger prey (deer, elk, moose), and more social, forming nuclear families. The gray wolf usually sees the coyote as a threat or even prey, not as a potential mate. Gray wolf genes occasionally found in a coywolf are thought to be mostly from the hybridization of gray with eastern wolves where their ranges meet northward in Canada and then the hybridization of those gray/eastern hybrids with coyotes or coywolves.
In contrast to this scenario, the results of a genetic study published in Science Advances in 2016 seem to indicate that the eastern wolf is not a unique species but rather a mixture of coyote and gray wolf, despite the general observation that gray wolves and coyotes rarely mate. The study was based on the genetic sequencing of 28 canids, including gray, eastern, and red wolves as well as coyotes. Because of the relatively small sampling, the study’s conclusions are at best tentative and require further research.