Why is the coyote doing so well adapting to stresses in its environment while humans are doing so poorly adapting to climate change?
Why ask about coyotes? Because humans and coyotes, unlike almost any other species, share a powerful and rare adaptation trait that scientists call fission-fusion.
That is, humans and coyotes can adapt to as well as flourish in a pack or individually. As a result, both species can be flexible about what they eat, how, if at all, they interact, and where they live. Code switchers in a way.
The result is a couple of species that over thousands of years of evolution has developed acute abilities to survive, adjust and explore.
What’s more, as the historian of the west, Dan Flores, puts it in his marvelous book “Coyote America,” this coyote lesson is universal.
Coyotes have done what it takes to survive and thrive. When it comes to climate change, we humans are not doing the same.
“The coyote’s remarkable resilience doesn’t just put me in mind of us; it operates as shorthand for the greatest story ever told, the miracle of ongoing evolutionary adaptation to an endlessly changing world,” Flores wrote.
The coyote population is flourishing — it can be found in every state except Hawaii — even though for at least a hundred years, the U.S. government and individuals have systematically tried to exterminate it.
Even now, an estimated half-million coyotes are killed each year. Yet there are likely as many of these animals as ever.
Let’s consider what makes the animal such a thriver and ultimately the more important question of how that helps explain our own muddling around with climate change.
There are three factors of coyote success that highlight our human problem. The first is a powerful and amazing genetic trait that coyotes do not share with us.
The more stress coyotes experience from their environment, say wolves killing them or more seriously people trying to exterminate them, the larger number of pups coyotes produce. And the babies on average weigh more.
The reasons for this ability are mysterious and complicated, no doubt involving evolutionary history. But the outcome is clear. You slaughter thousands, and they reproduce more.
The optimistic coyote story as well as the troubling human one shows that miracles don’t just happen.
But that’s a coyote-centric reason. The other success factors, however, are definitely more applicable to humans.
Second, evidence-based science as well as cultural changes now support a kinder and gentler view of coyotes.
Flores points out that views regarding coyotes polarize along the same lines as views of Obamacare or global warming, and the federal government still does the livestock industry’s bidding by killing off the animal.
But overall — and it has been a struggle — scientific studies of coyote behavior and value have changed the coyote’s image as a vicious arch-predator to a useful critter essential to ecological balance. Government policies reflect this.
Coyote science denial still has its days, but it’s nothing like the organized, politically potent, polarizing science denial that drives opposition to climate change policies.
And there is nothing like the Trump administration’s movement to stop the federal government from working on climate change.
Third, coyotes have adopted a new habitat. Coyote evolutionary adaptation is bouncing right along, mainly because they have gone urban. The best place for a coyote to be right now, in fact, is somewhere in an American city.
The New York City borough of Queens, the parks of Chicago and LA and the fancy areas just above downtown Portland are among the new lone prairies where coyotes howl, but you can regularly find them in most American cities.
“From the point of view of the coyotes, adapted to the presence of human encampments for 15,000 years and human cities for 1,000 years or more,” Flores says, this mass movement to the bright lights “must have all seemed entirely normal, effortless, and natural.”
All those inherited and learned skills were necessary, but they needed to learn new behaviors like using railroad lines as pathways to town, crossing busy streets, and using newfangled places for shelters. Because they have been omnivores for thousands of years, diet is no problem.
The human world is also becoming more urbanized, but our own adaptation is much more problematical than the coyote’s, especially in regard to climate change.
Saving The Planet Through Change
There is nothing close to an agreed upon adaptation path for cities to deal with climate change. According to Ian Klaus, one of the authors of the most recent significant study of climate change, “There is no way to save the planet without serious changes in how city-dwellers live, work, and move.”
Over the past decade or so non-college-educated people in dicey economic situations have become more reluctant to move away, often because they can’t afford to live in the cities with better jobs.
Mass migration from country to city and from country to country is an out-of-control, seemingly intractable problem.
Despite the certainty of sea level rise, people continue to build or rebuild houses on the shores.
And now questions are being raised about whether Honolulu’s rail is being built in areas subject to sea level rise.
Such a rocky path, so much dystopia, so many counterarguments based on pure ideology and no scientific facts.
Look, I know as well as you do that interspecies comparisons have significant limits. But this coyote-human comparison offers important lessons.
The coyote story does, as Flores says, exemplify the miracle of evolutionary adaptation, but the optimistic coyote story as well as the troubling human one shows that miracles don’t just happen.
Evolutionary adaptability depends on the combination of genetic capacity and on more immediate circumstances and forces that can either impede or encourage the adaptation.
The coyote’s adaptation is sitting pretty partially because changes in scientific beliefs and cultural acceptance have made it possible for coyotes to use their capacity and have the space and time to adjust.
That’s not where we are with climate change. Humans, an amazingly adaptable and curious species, face a moment in time when there are powerful forces that deny the importance of this adaptability or do little or nothing to encourage it.
We humans are much more stuck and confused about what to do next. There are no clearly marked rail tracks leading out of trouble.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.