In the 12 years that Stan Gehrt has been tracking a population of coyotes on the Northwest side of Chicago, living not far from O’Hare International Airport, he has watched them adapt to the city in some pretty stunning ways. For one thing, they understand traffic patterns – in fact, better than some people do.
As best as Gehrt and other researchers can tell, these coyotes have learned what cars are and can understand which direction traffic flows. Coyotes crossing a one-way street know that they need to look in only one direction. They’ve even embraced medians. Coyotes crossing large roads in the city are prone to dash across one direction of traffic and sit waiting on the island in the middle for the other lanes to clear.
“We have one animal living in downtown Chicago, and we’ve watched her cross intersections,” says Gehrt, an associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University. “She’ll sit on the corner and literally wait until the cars are all stopped at the red light. She’ll wait until she’s sure that vehicles aren’t going, and once everyone stops, then she darts across the road. She’s been able to live in that downtown area now for three years without getting hit by a car.”All of this is remarkable not just for what it tells us about coyote cunning (and the interspecies communicative power of well-placed traffic lights). Coyotes have adapted to the city in ways that scientists never thought possible. And their impressive survival in urban settings suggests we could soon be coexisting with even larger carnivores.
Coyotes occupy a kind of carnivore niche, Gehrt says: They’re the biggest predators we have living in our cities so far, but they also sit at the bottom end of a much more imposing range of meat-eaters. “Now coming behind coyotes,” he says, “we have in North America mountain lions, bears, and wolves.”