Urban Predator Ecology and Behavior

urban coyote
The loss and fragmentation of natural habitats that results from anthropogenic land development have been associated with reductions in biodiversity. Some Carnivorans adapt very well to living in urban landscapes, able to den in and move through fragmented natural areas and feed on natural prey, garbage, and free-living domestic pets. Large, wide-ranging predators like mountain lions are particularly vulnerable to the effects of urbanization and are becoming increasingly rare throughout southern California.

However, the effects of urbanization are not the same for all species; the North American home range of coyotes for example, has expanded despite urbanization, their presence in urban landscapes being attributed in part to behavioral adaptations that allow them to exploit anthropogenic food sources and structures. We are studying how coyotes (Canis latrans) and other predators move through urban landscapes, feed on different types of prey, and interact with domestic pets. We are working toward these goals in three distinct ways:

Urban Carnivore Monitoring

Max Amaya with field crew
The Mammal Lab is a partner in the Urban Wildlife Information Network, an enormous collaboration between more than a dozen educational and wildlife institutions to study how wildlife activity changes along an urban to rural gradient. As a partner, we have set up more than 25 motion activated trail cameras in Orange County, CA to monitor wildlife activity. In addition to sharing our data with our partners, we are asking questions about how urbanization influences local carnivore activity, particularly urban coyotes. We are interested in collaborating with local and national partners to broaden our work on coyote ecology in urban landscapes.

Predators and Prey Models

We also use motion activated trail cameras to study wild predator interactions with prey models. Specifically, we are interested in how coyotes interact with (i.e., avoid, investigate, are attracted to) artificial furry skunk models that have different stripe patterns and scents associated with them. By observing natural spontaneous encounters with our models, we can study how different signals from the skunks influence coyote predatory behavior.

Kathy Vo with furry models

Predator Learning and Captive Coyotes

Coyote in field

In collaboration with Utah State University, we have been conducting experimental studies of coyote predatory and learning behavior on captive coyotes at the USDA Predator Research Center in Logan, Utah. Using artificial furry models that vary in coloration and may or may not spray noxious skunk oil, we can ask questions about how individual naive coyotes learn about skunk defenses and their ability to generalize negative experiences to new encounters with other skunks that might vary in their patterns. Further, we ultimately hope to use our knowledge of aversive learning in coyotes to explore the potential of training wild coyotes to not attack domestic pets and ease human-wildlife conflict.