Coyotes are poised to invade South America. Humans are to blame.

A coyote wearing a GPS radio collar roams Elysian Park in Los Angeles after a heavy rain in May. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
A coyote wearing a GPS radio collar roams Elysian Park in Los Angeles after a heavy rain in May. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
Jan. 9, 2020 at 11:15 a.m. PST

There’s an invasion afoot at the border of Central America and South America. The assailant: North America’s coyote.

Coyotes are among the most adaptable species in the world. No matter where they go, they seem to make themselves at home, from the frosty tundras of Canada to the deserts of Mexico to the busy cities of the United States. Historically, their range ended where the jungles of Central America began, but now scientists worry that barrier isn’t holding up.

A recent study underscores why: Deforestation in the rainforests of Panama has carved out new routes of passage for the coyote. Before long, the paper’s authors warn, the species could inhabit an entirely new continent — the first wave in what could be a new threat to the biodiversity of the Western hemisphere.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Mammalogy, used camera-trap surveys and data from roadkill to track the movement of the intrepid animal. Coyotes began punching through the jungles south of Mexico in the 1950s, reaching the isthmus of Panama in the early 1980s. Since then, as the country lost hundreds of thousands of acres of jungle to agriculture, the animals rapidly expanded their territory, crossing the Panama Canal around 2014.

in the course of just three years, beginning in 2015, the animals pushed forward their territory by at least 124 miles, the study says. Scientists have detected the species all the way to the western edge of Panama’s Darien National Park — the last obstacle left before they reach South America.

That obstacle might just hold back the coyote’s conquest. After all, humans have yet to tame Darien’s dense jungles and wetlands, home to fierce jaguars and deadly snakes. Attempts at completing a road through the region — which would have filled the last remaining gap in the Pan-American Highway running from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina — failed in the 1970s, and humans have yet to attempt it since.

But the cunning coyote might yet prevail. “Anyone who studies coyotes for long knows not to underestimate them,” said Roland Kays, head of the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and co-author of the study.

Kays points out that another invasive species has already made the jump from one American continent to the next — in the opposite direction. The crab-eating fox, another adventurous canid species native to South America, made its way from Colombia to Panama through the Darien gap a couple of years ago, also largely thanks to deforestation. The fox species and the coyote now share territory for the first time in recorded history.

The ramifications for such a species interchange have yet to be seen, but if previous episodes of invasive species tell us anything, it won’t be good. Coyotes that reach South America would almost certainly spread far and wide, just as they have in the north. The coyotes aren’t typically any more threatening than feral dogs. But they would disrupt food chains and compete for ecological resources with native wildlife across the continent. They would also clash with South American human communities, as they have in North American cities.

And coyotes could just be the start. As deforestation continues, other species might follow the path across the Darien gap, including insects and agricultural pests. Who knows what havoc such travelers could wreak on either side of the Panamanian land bridge?

Why risk such a fate? Fortunately, the nations of Central America resolved last month at the U.N. COP 25 Climate Change Conference to halt the destruction of the “five great forests” of southern Mexico and Central America, including the Darien. It’s an encouraging development, but those nations must be held accountable to make sure they actually follow through.

To begin, they can set one concrete goal: Hold the line against invading coyotes. Fortify the region’s rainforest defenses. Do everything possible to keep these animals from arriving in a new continent. If we can stave off this offense, perhaps we can win the bigger war to save biodiversity.

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