The Carnivores Next Door

Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood: Mountain Lions (Photograph: Bruce Dale)

First it was the raccoons. Next came the coyotes. And then? Bigger carnivores. Urban and suburban areas in North America are home to a lot of small, wild predators, and now scientists believe that the coyote’s success in adapting to an urban lifestyle could pave the way for larger carnivores to move in.

Ohio State University professor Stan Gehrt has been studying coyote populations near Chicago for 12 years (his team’s research found the coyotes to be monogamous). He described the research in a talk at EcoSummit 2012, an international conference held in Columbus, Ohio.

One of the coyote groups under observation occupies the smallest known coyote territory ever observed—about a third of a square mile. To Gehrt: “That’s an indication that they don’t have to go far to find food and water. They’re finding everything they need right there, in the suburbs of Chicago. It amazes me.”

Coyotes are the largest mammalian carnivores—so far—to have adapted and thrived in an urban setting. Gehrt believes that “The coyote is the test case for other animals. Raccoons, skunks, foxes—they’ve already been able to penetrate the urban landscape pretty well. The coyote is the most recent and largest. The jury’s out with what’s going to happen with the bigger ones.”

So who are the bigger ones poised to invade? Wolves, mountain lions, and bears, for a start. Mountain lions are making appearances near cities already—including the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago and recently in Des Moines, Iowa. A family of black bears has recently been spotted roaming the suburban streets Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

Easy access to food attracts carnivores, such as black bears. (Photograph: George F. Mobley)

According to Gehrt, it’s these larger mammals that “are going to be an even bigger challenge.” It used to be that humans moved to urban areas to get away from the dangers of living near big predators. Now, it seems the carnivores are following us.

“The funny thing is that now we have more people on Earth and bigger cities than ever, we also now have carnivores moving into cities. It’s a two-way street: We’re expanding cities into their territories and they’re also coming in,” said Gehrt, who also holds appointments with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State University Extension.

“It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores. In the future, and I would say currently, it’s cities where we’re going to have this intersection between people and carnivores,” he said. “We used to think only little carnivores could live in cities, and even then we thought they couldn’t really achieve large numbers. But we’re finding that these animals are much more flexible than we gave them credit for and they’re adjusting to our cities.

“That’s going to put the burden back on us: Are we going to be able to adjust to them living with us or are we not going to be able to coexist?”



Meet the Author
Focusing on content that entertains, astounds, and informs, Amy Briggs is freelance writer and former senior editor with National Geographic Books . The author of National Geographic Angry Birds Space, Briggs worked closely with National Geographic NewsWatch's David Braun on National Geographic Tales of the Weird. Excited by all things trivial, odd, and just unusual, she lives in Virginia with her family.