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Mysterious death stalls groundbreaking research on LA's urban coyotes

The first-ever study of urban coyotes in Los Angeles County has suffered a setback, as the last remaining animal with a working GPS collar has been found dead.

Researchers with the National Park Service responded to a call of a dead coyote in MacArthur Park on December 4. The collared animal was identified as C-146, the third coyote captured and monitored near downtown Los Angeles.

The scientist leading the project said he was disappointed by the loss, especially because the batteries in the collars of the study’s two other coyotes appear to have died.

“It’s a bummer. I mean, hopefully we can get her collar refurbished, and then we’ll put it back out," said Justin Brown, an ecologist with the National Park Service. "So hopefully we’ll get at least another couple animals on the air over the next six months to a year."

The study of Los Angeles’s urban coyotes began in the spring of 2015 with the aim of better understanding how the predators exist in heavily developed areas. Though coyotes are widely known to exist in urbanized areas throughout the country, little was known about where the predators travel and the food sources they use.

Brown said he eventually hopes to collar at least a dozen coyotes over the course of the study. Some coyotes in less-developed areas are also being monitored to allow behavior comparisons. 

Brown captured and collared C-146 in late September. The young female coyote was a subordinate female in a pack that primarily used the Los Angles River as habitat.

Brown said her movement data showed that she relied mainly on small natural areas not heavily trafficked by humans.

“We learned that even these young animals, they can persist in these habitat patches that are around L.A. — something like the L.A. River — without having to go into these urban areas,” Brown said. “They do find ways to avoid us.”

Coyote C-146 also provided interesting data when she left her main habitat and traveled to areas around downtown L.A., including Elysian Park and Vista Hermosa Park.

A map of C-146's movements show she primarily stayed along the Los Angeles River but traveled around Downtown before dying in MacArthur Park.
National Park Service
A map of C-146's movements show she primarily stayed along the Los Angeles River but traveled around Downtown before dying in MacArthur Park.

“She spent almost her whole time along the L.A. River until all of a sudden she dispersed out of there and did these crazy dispersal movements and then died for some unknown reason,” Brown said.

Brown said when C-146’s body was recovered in MacArthur Park, it was soaking wet and covered in algae, leading him to believe she had been in the water. However, he is not sure why that would have happened.

“We don’t know if somebody pulled it out of the water or if it had been swimming and then died," Brown said. "I just don’t know the exact cause there. It’s kind of weird." 

The body is being tested to determine the cause of death. Brown said he expects the lab results “to be in any day.”

In the meantime, recent reports indicate that the other two coyotes are still alive, though their collars have stopped collecting and transmitting data. Brown said C-145, a male coyote, was reported seen a couple weeks ago, and C-144, a female, was captured on wildlife camera within the past few days.

Brown said he will continue attempting to put collars on urban coyotes, though since the project is not funded, he has limited opportunities to make the attempts.

“I am working on trying to get one out, but it’s just kind of like a day here, a day there, and coyotes are not the easiest things to put collars on,” Brown said.

Another consideration is the limited number of collars he has available. Because the inactive collars on C-144 and C-145 have dead batteries, Brown said he is unsure they will drop off the animals at the programmed time.

The National Park Service has enough GPS collars to track three urban coyotes in Los Angeles.
Jed Kim
The National Park Service has enough GPS collars to track three urban coyotes in Los Angeles.

Even if the collars do detach as hoped, without the power to transmit location data, it’s unlikely they will be findable by Brown’s team. He said he hopes a citizen that comes across such a collar in the future will return it to the National Park Service.

That cooperation will likely rely on individual interest in continuation of the project, as the National Park Service does not offer compensation for the return of a collar for fear such a reward would act as a bounty.

“We don’t generally give rewards, just because then it does make people more likely — if they see it — to hit the animal,” he said.