Bi-Parental Effects in Coyotes (Canis latrans)

For my dissertation work (2009-15), I focused on the mechanism commonly known as parental effects in coyotes. These parental effects generally describe the influences that parents have on their offspring above and beyond genetic inheritance. Factors such as behavior (e.g. provisioning, guarding, play) and hormones (e.g. cortisol, testosterone) can have significant effects on offspring that affect their development. Remarkably, parent's behavior and hormones both after AND before birth can initiate critical changes to offspring developmental trajectories that have longstanding consequences for those individuals even into adulthood.

One captive 7-week old pup (left) standing next to it's mother (right) at the Predator Research Centers in Millville, UT under the umbrella of the National Wildlife Research Centers (NWRC) and USDA.  Photo courtesy of USDA

Video camera situated to observe target coyotes behavior during an evening observation session (dissertation work).  Photo provided by C. J. Schell

My specific questions were:

  1. Do environmental perturbations during gestation or prior breeding experience influence maternal or paternal behavior?
  2. If so, are personality and hormonal traits of pups during development associated with parental traits?
  3. Finally, are the behavioral and hormonal traits of pups consistent into adulthood?

For more information on my thesis and findings, please visit the University of Chicago's dissertation office for a copy (click here).

Adaptive capacity of personality in coyotes

Schell performing an aptitude test on a 5-week old coyote pup for his dissertation work.  Schell used aptitude tests as a predictive metric to understand the personality development of coyotes from infancy into adulthood.

  • How consistent are personality traits over time?
  • How does plasticity in behavior correspond with underlying hormonal or genetic markers?
  • Is there a hormonal or genetic basis for behaviors that facilitate adaptation of novel environments?

Dog toys used as novel objects that were dismantled by a coyote family group during observation (dissertation work).  Photo by C. J. Schell

For my dissertation, I was interested in how personality develops and it's consistency from infancy to adulthood. I used a series of aptitude tests previously described for domestic dogs to determine whether we could predict personality traits that would manifest in adulthood. I also used several novel objects and foraging tests, and combined them with general observations of natural behaviors to gain a comprehensive picutre of coyote personality, something rarely done for this elusive species. More info to come on the results!

Two 5-week old pups that just completed aptitude testing and were shaved for identification.

For my postdoctoral fellowship, I aim to better understand personality in the context of environmental and temporal variation. To that end, I closely monitor the urban Denver coyote population using a series of tests to quantify personality. Over the 3 years of my NSF postdoc (2015-18), my goal is to provide extensive and robust data both categorizing personality variation along an urban-to-rural gradient, as well as provide insight into the personality traits that have facilitated coyote expansion across the North American continent.

Accompanying Factors: Hormones, Genetics, and Genomics

Some of the major questions I'm interested in for my postdoc are:

Schell working at the lab bench in the Davee Center Endocrinology laboratory, under the umbrella of the Conservation and Science Department at Lincoln Park Zoo with Director Rachel M. Santymire.

  • What are the genetic markers associated with target behaviors (e.g. boldness) that facilitate colonization of novel environments?
  • Are there general hormonal differences for individuals that primarily inhabit urban versus rural environments?
  • Can we use a genomics approach to better understand how urban wildlife are responding to urban residency?

Glitter used to identify fecal samples from different individuals at the Predator Research Facility in Millville, UT.  The fecal samples (in the back) were used for Schell's dissertation to assess fecal glucocorticoids and androgen metabolites from pregnant coyote mothers.

From my dissertation work, we now know that there is a hormonal basis for boldness, aggression, and exploratory behaviors in coyotes. However, it is uncertain how hormonal profiles correlate with genetic markers of individuals in urban areas. Stay tuned for more information on this developing aspect of the DUCP project!