Urban coyote researcher Chris Schell hold a coyote skin in a museum
© Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative


Do genetics play a role in how bold or wary a coyote may be? Does a coyote's family tree help determine which individuals are more likely to take up residence in a busy city? A team of researchers are set on discovering what secrets the DNA of Colorado's coyotes reveal about behavior, which could guide us in smarter coexistence strategies.

by Melanie Hill
November 2016


Colorado’s Front Range is home to the western edge of the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It’s the best of both worlds, in my mind: to the east are big blue skies resting on top of wide open grassy plains, and if you look west you will find the impressive rock formations of the foothills. The biodiversity in this region is incredible- coniferous forests, big cottonwood trees, yucca plants, tons of colorful wildflowers, prickly pear cactus, an abundance of wildlife, and the list goes on.

These aren’t the only living beings that thrive here; the Front Range also contains the state’s largest cities and highest populated areas.

A variety of wild animals have adapted to the urban settings the Front Range provides, with some of the more commonly seen wildlife being squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, mule deer, numerous bird species, raccoons, skunks, and even foxes. As the Front Range cities continue to expand, we’re also seeing an influx of larger predator species such as black bears, mountain lions, and perhaps the most adaptive species of them all: the coyote.


A rise in urban coyote activity

Within the past decade, the number of coyote sightings – and conflicts – has steadily increased in the Front Range. In Denver specifically, the past 30 years of urban sprawl have brought on some incredible changes to the behavioral aspects of this species. A 2010-2014 study led by USDA National Wildlife Research Center scientist Dr. Stewart Breck found that coyotes were learning how to survive in cities by reading people. Our behavioral patterns, set schedules, traffic conditions, and the like are cues to coyotes about how to live next to, and avoid, human detection. Incredible, right?

Breck’s team also found that coyotes were relative newcomers to Denver; they colonized the city after it was built. And despite the hustle and bustle of people in nearby parks, residential areas, and business spaces, coyotes have no issues getting around.

His research provided some outstanding foundation, but a few questions still remained:

  • Why did human-coyote conflicts begin rising in 2005?
  • Why do we see more coyote attacks on the west side of the country than the Midwest and East Coast?
  • How are coyote populations able to grow and thrive in cities over such extensive periods of time?
  • What are the primary biological factors making coyotes so successful in environments? 
  • How have they been able to adapt to cities generally in timescales ~30 years or less?
Just weeks old, these are the youngest coyote specimens found at DMNS. © Melanie Hill / Urban Coyote Initiative

Enter: Dr. Chris Schell

Dr. Chris Schell is an evolutionary biologist, behavioral endocrinologist, urban ecologist, and quite the charismatic speaker. Whether it be over the phone, through email, in the lab, or presenting to a room full of concerned residents, it’s easy to see how passionate he is about his work. His enthusiasm is contagious.

To expand the scope of Breck’s exceptional findings, Schell launched a 3-year study focusing on “Cosmopolitan carnivores: An investigation of the behavioral, hormonal, and genetic factors underlying coyote success in urban environments.” The study is part of the Denver Urban Coyote Project, which aims to uncover the real Wily E. Coyote. 

Schell is working with local land managers, organizations, and individuals in the greater Denver Metro region to gather data in a few different ways.

First, to get a stronger understanding of the urban coyotes’ behavioral patterns and territories, Schell is in the process of trapping the animals and collaring them with GPS trackers.

Before they release the coyotes back into the wild, his team also takes a few hair and DNA samples, which they then use in comparison with historic data. The available historic information dates back more than 100 years ago and is housed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s collections facility. 

Dr. Schell preparing tissue samples. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

To broaden the scope of his findings and ensure that local communities remain involved, Chris incorporated a citizen science element into his research. He’s doing this through an online platform called iNaturalist. Whenever residents in the area spot a coyote, Chris encourages them to submit their sightings on the Denver CoyoteWatch page.

There, users can join the Denver Urban Coyote Project’s ever-growing research base by uploading pictures, specific locations, and any other details about the sighting. With all these individual observations coming together, Chris’s team can develop a much larger picture of where these coyotes are going, and what might be attracting them.

And if social media outlets are your preferred communication outlet, locals can also share their sightings on Twitter with the #DenverCoyotes hashtag. That’s right, tweeting for science!

Dr. Chris Schell examines a coyote specimen in the museum's laboratory.
Dr. Chris Schell examines a coyote specimen in the museum's laboratory. © Morgan Heim / Urban Coyote Initiative

In addition to the important research he’s currently conducting, Schell launched an educational program for K-12 students. The program works to empower underrepresented communities in wildlife science, and presents his research at public gatherings in the area so residents can easily access information on urban carnivores. 

“It’s important to understand how coyotes are living amongst us partly because it’s the new norm,” Schell explained to me after our first meeting at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “A lot of our urban areas are radically changing, but they’re also stabilizing in a sense that we have certain species in these areas and the likelihood of them leaving anytime soon is very low because populations now have cemented their ‘legacy’ in these urban ecosystems.”


“Understanding how coyotes influence that ecosystem is important on a theoretical level for us, but also on a management level in trying to understand how we need to change our behavior. So, understanding how we walk our dogs, whether or not we let our cats outside – all these decisions that we make on a daily basis that used to be commonplace thirty years ago, we have to rethink.”


What’s next?

The Urban Coyote Initiative is beyond excited to have this opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Schell’s team as they examine exactly how these Denver coyotes have become so successful with adapting to urban life. As the research progresses, contributing photographers Morgan Heim and Melanie Hill will assist Dr. Schell and his team out in the field, inside the lab, at community meetings, educational programs, and more.

We are committed to shining a light on this important work that’s being done, so Denver communities can understand what their canid neighbors need to peacefully coexist.

Coming soon: Morgan and Melanie join Dr. Schell in the lab at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to document his coyote sampling process. And in the process, they nerd out over flesh eating beetles with the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology.

© Melanie Hill / Urban Coyote Initiative

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