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Charlotte, N.C. — South America gave the U.S. very annoying populations of invasive fire ants and boa constrictors, and it appears we’re finally returning the favor.

The pesky North American coyote, currently found in 49 of the 50 states, is migrating through Panama toward South America, according to research by Roland Kays, a wildlife biologist at North Carolina State University.

It’s happening now because that region’s fiercest predators, including jaguars, are thinning out as the dense Darien forest falls to urban and agricultural development, Kays says in his study, published in the Dec. 19 issue of the Journal of Mammalogy.

Good riddance, you say?

Well, Kays’ research comes with a sobering warning: The same environmental shift helping coyotes go south is also inviting South American species to move north — toward us.

“We may be seeing the start of the ‘Not-So-Great American Biotic Exchange,’” Kays said in a Dec. 20 release from N.C. State.

“The Darien is one of the last wilderness areas in South America, part of the frontier, with species like peccaries and jaguars, which are South America’s best defense against coyotes. … If a new predator comes in, prey animals are naive. Predators can decimate them,” he says in the release.

One South American species already has taken advantage of the changes: Camera traps show the carnivorous crab-eating fox — which has the same diet as a coyote — has moved from South America into Panama, Kays’ study reported.

Evidence suggests the two invasive species are trying to avoid each other — for now, Kays says in the report.

North American coyotes are wild canines that grow to about 2 feet tall, 4 feet in length and up to 45 pounds, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

However, a change in their appearance was documented in Kays’ research: Coyotes appearing in Panama apparently have been breeding with dogs, his report says.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about hybridization of coyotes with dogs, but we’ve been finding a lot of coyotes with short tails, hound faces and unusual coloration,” Kays said in the N.C. State release. “We’ve seen the short tail a lot, not just once or twice.”

Coyotes in the United States are known to prey on domestic pets and have been recorded attacking humans in cases of rabies infection.

Jodie Owen, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, told McClatchy News this year that there are only two known cases of fatal coyote attacks involving humans in North America.

However, there have been multiple non-fatal attacks, including two in 2018 in North Carolina involving children. In March 2018, a 9-year-old girl was attacked on her porch, and in May 2018, a father and daughter were attacked and bitten in their backyard, McClatchy reported.

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders known to eat almost anything — from road kill to garbage, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

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