Every fur hunter with any experience knows what mange is, and most have seen how devastating it can be to the critters it latches on to. When this highly contagious burrowing mite takes hold, the animal is in for a rough time—and I'll go out of my way to put an afflicted coyote out of its misery. The cause of mange is well known and it's easily recognized, but there's another kind of fur damage rearing its head … which is more of a mystery.
I'm referring to the loss of hair, particularly long guard hairs, across the top of a canine's shoulders. I see this regularly in coyotes and it's usually significant enough damage that it renders the fur worthless. However, unlike mange, it doesn't seem to have a major effect on the animal's health.
The attached photo shows this damage on a coyote I harvested recently. I've compared notes with predator hunters all over the continent, and it seems to be a wide-spread phenomenon. There are all kinds of explanations as to what causes it, with "shoulder mites" being a common one.
I've never completely bought that explanation and have always preferred to believe it's a simple rub mark made from feeding on the carcasses of large animals like cattle or deer. Because a coyote thinks the guts are the tastiest, they feed into that area with eagerness and the top of the shoulders rub against the ribs as they stretch in for the tastiest morsel. Thus, the hair across the shoulders is rubbed off.
However, it looks like everyone is wrong.
Dr. Margo Pybus a wildlife disease specialist, has been looking into this issue and her preliminary opinion is that neither of the above two explanations are correct. She says the hair follicles that produce the guard hairs have, in effect, shut down. This causes the guard hairs to weaken and fall out, after which no replacement is grown.
Unfortunately, Pybus doesn't have an explanation for why this is occurring. But she is sure it's not mites and it's not a rub mark. Her work in this area is continuing, and when the problem surfaces this winter, I'll be submitting samples to help her in understanding the problem.
As I write this, the North American Fur Auction just concluded their June sale and coyotes continue to sell well, posting an average price of $88. Besides being a predator that needs control, that price also makes them a valuable resource, and it's a shame to see this fur rendered unmarketable.