Evidence of self-domestication in wild coyotes?



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While the evolution of cognition is still poorly understood, the self-domestication hypothesis proposes that psychology can evolve due to natural selection on temperament that leads to expanded developmental windows and cascading phenotypic effects. This hypothesis has been proposed to apply to dogs, bonobos, and even humans based on evidence for increased prosociality and a host of phenotypic traits resembling by-products of experimental domestication found in each species. To date all evidence in support of the self-domestication hypothesis has comes from experiments and inferred past selection pressure in wild animals. No study has tested for natural selection favouring increased prosociality in current populations of wild animals. In the past decades many animals have been rapidly recolonizing environments densely populated by humans. Urbanization is predicted to select for nonhumans that are non-aggressive, less fearful, and even attracted to densely populated areas and humans more generally. Coyotes represent an ideal candidate species to test this hypothesis as they have increasingly expand into new urban habitats. Coyote behaviour is likely influenced by human activity. They are displaying highly plastic behaviour in feeding and sleep patterns while they are hybridizing with other canids, and are undergoing these behavioural changes very rapidly relative to evolutionary time. As an exploratory test for signals of coyote self-domestication in areas of varying human influence, we used data from camera traps deployed across North Carolina. We coded coyote behaviour toward the camera (notice/approach) to test for changes in temperament associated with level of human density. Initial results suggest wild coyotes have a tendency to approach trap cameras less often in the most remote habitats than coyotes in exurban areas. Although the findings are not conclusive, they provide reason to further test for a link between differential coyote temperament and degree of urbanization. It also suggests the feasibility of using behaviour recorded by camera traps to test predictions generated by cognitive evolutionary theory. This initial research provides the first results consistent with self-domestication in modern species undergoing rapid evolution due to natural selection.





Brooks, James (2017). Evidence of self-domestication in wild coyotes?. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16745.

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