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From the coast of California, a startling discovery: blue-eyed genetically mutant coyotes

Genetic blip causes rare color, which could interfere with light sensitivity
From the coast of California, a startling discovery: blue-eyed genetically mutant coyotes hero image

Coyotes weigh up to 40 pounds, can live for 14 years in the wild, can run up to 40 miles per hours when chasing prey, mate for life, and walk on their toes. Their scientific name,Canis latrans, means “barking dog” in Latin, they are great swimmers, and they live in every state in America except Hawaii (OK, so apparently they are not that great at swimming).

And, to the surprise of many, some in California now have blue eyes.

The first blue-eyed coyote sightings were reported in the winter of 2019, and since then reports have come from Point Reyes, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento. The first photos of the blue-eyed animals were made public by wildlife photographer Dan Dietrich.

Normally, coyotes have brown eyes, but scientists have hypothesized that these blue-eyed animals descend from a single coyote who carried a mutant gene which caused the blue eyes.

National Geographic called the animal “one in a million” and said the mutation likely appeared several generations ago.

Actually, “one in a million” is hard to say with certainty, David Press, a wildlife ecologist in Point Reyes, told SFGate. There are so many millions of coyotes in America that 500,000 alone are shot, trapped, or poisoned every year in predator control programs. Press notes that more people in the backcountry now, and better and more powerful cameras make such spottings more likely.

Why the blue eyes? That’s still up for speculation, though Juan Negro, an animal eye hue expert, told National Geographic that blue irises could cause light sensitivity and interfere with camouflaging. The Smithsonian magazine added that those disadvantages could be shrugged off since humans have eradicated the coyotes’ main predators, wolves and mountain lions. As to why they are seen over such a relatively large area, that could be due to the fact that some coyotes are forced out of their family groups and have to roam far before they are accepted by a new pack or form their own.

University of Colorado ecologist and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff told Atlas Obscura that wild coyotes can sometimes acquire new traits after breeding with dogs, but that does not appear to be the case here.

“There needs to be much more research before people make wide-ranging pronouncements about what’s happening,” he said, although consensus so far points to a rare but natural genetic mutation.

While rare, these mutant coyotes are not the only animals with blue eyes. Others can include:

  • Horses
  • Owls
  • Cats
  • Lemurs
  • Cranes
  • Llamas
  • Emus
  • Koalas
  • Tigers
  • Goats
  • Siberian huskies
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