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Studying coyote urine may offer clues into the animal's social communication

Researcher and PhD biology student Caroline Long, stands front and center in the field as snow covered mountains stretch into the horizon behind her. She holds a container with numerous vials each containing a coyote urine sample
Caroline Long
Caroline Long, PhD biology student who studies coyote social behavior holds a container of coyote urine samples

“So, my research is kind of multi-level looking at coyote social communication via urine,” says Caroline Long, a fellow UPR science reporter, and PhD student in the department of biology at Utah State University who studies coyote social behavior.

“So looking at the behavioral responses in captive coyotes to determine how different scents from self, sibling, pair mate or stranger might have different relevance or elicit different responses,” she says.

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Long conducts her research at the Utah Field Station’s Millville Predator Research Facility, a 165-acre site that houses up to 100 coyotes where Long and other researchers study coyote behaviors such as general interactions, reproduction, wariness, and many others.

“There's been a lot of research more in the ecology side of things, you know? As far as, coyote scent, marking scent, communication behavior, but we don't necessarily know exactly what information they're getting out of those cues," says Long. "So that's kind of what I'm interested in looking at is can you tell the difference between a sibling and a stranger?”

Long wants to know more about how behaviors may change as coyotes age. As pups mature, some will disperse to live elsewhere. In their future they may run into the scent marking of an old den mate. Does the urine of an old sibling perhaps elicit a different response than that of a total stranger? And can they even tell the difference?

“There's been studies showing that different animals can distinguish, you know, even one genetic locus difference. So just a very slight genetic difference can be detectable and this is in lab rats.”

But what about coyotes? Well at present we don’t really know, which is part of the reason Long is undertaking her study.

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“I'm hoping that when I eventually analyze all of this data, that I will see some differences in either males and females, how males and females react to urine stimuli.”

And that’s going to require more data and lots more time with the coyotes.

This story first aired on UPR in May.