Last year, a wildlife photographer spotted a “one in a million” coyote with captivating blue eyes while out on a walk in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore.
The sighting quickly became national news and prompted an investigation by National Geographic, which confirmed the coyote’s eye color was indeed rare — as coyotes’ irises are almost always some shade of gold. At the time, Juan Negro, a senior researcher at the Spanish Council for Research in Spain, told the publication he hadn’t seen something like that in the 25 years he’d been studying animal coloration.
“Deviants, or strange colors, arise from time to time as mutants,” Negro suggested back in June.
It’s only been about 10 months since the female coyote was first singled out in California, and it appears it has already lost some of its rarity.
In recent months, at least four more coyotes with similar icy blues have been identified in the area, National Geographic confirmed this week. Since all of the creatures have been located within a 100-mile radius, scientists say it’s safe to assume the blue-eyed animals are all offspring from one “mutant.” However, it’s unclear if the initial female coyote spotted in Point Reyes was the one to introduce the mutant gene.
Some scientists explored the possibility the blue-eyed animals were “coydogs,” a canid hybrid. But ultimately that hypothesis was dismissed because the coyotes’ didn’t appear to have altered fur coats or differences in bone structure.
“How pervasive is the mutation? We don’t know. It’s not something we were aware of beforehand,” Camilla Fox, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Project Coyote, told the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday.
Fox said the agency plans to track the blue-eyed coyotes to see if the trend grows and to gain insight into how the mutant gene was introduced into that particular pack. Park visitors equipped with cameras and smartphones could also help by snapping pictures of any coyotes they see while traveling around Point Reyes, wildlife officials said.
In the coming years, scientists aim to learn more about how the eye color will affect the animal’s ability to evolve and thrive in its environment.
“They have the color which is best for their environments and their way of living,” Negro recently explained to Nat Geo, adding it could have some negative impacts such as harming their ability to blend into their surroundings — avoiding predators and sneaking up on prey — and increase their sensitivity to light.
While there are still a lot of unanswered questions, Fox is glad the discovery of blue-eyed coyotes have attracted attention in The Golden State.
“[Hopefully it] elicits and encourages people to view coyotes in the wild … with a lens instead of a gun,” she told the Chronicle, noting an estimated 500,000 coyotes are killed each year in the U.S., many for sport.
Photographers in Point Reyes say the blue-eyed beauties appear to be healthy, meaning there’s potential for even more “mutants” in the near future.