By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A coyote spotted on Wednesday in an exclusive Manhattan neighborhood touched off a massive police hunt that shut down Riverside Park, then led to Columbia University and Grants Tomb.

Before moving on up to the most expensive of New York City's five boroughs, coyotes have shown up in recent weeks in the Bronx and Queens as well as suburban New Jersey, and wildlife experts says the predators are becoming increasingly comfortable in cities, which offer more opportunities for prey.

After the pre-dawn sighting on Wednesday of a coyote on Manhattan's West Side, the New York City Police Department scoured Riverside Park with helicopters and ground units for several hours.

By mid-afternoon, the search had been called off and the wily beast remained at large.

"He's in the wind," said Detective Martin Speechley, a police department spokesman.

This month alone, another coyote was captured in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and there were two coyote attacks reported in suburban Bergen County, New Jersey, including on a man walking his dog.

The influx of coyotes into urban areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles is a sign of their ability to adapt to environments where they are drawn to abundance of food including mice, squirrels, rabbits and, sometimes, pet cats, said Roland Kays, a zoologist at North Carolina State University who studies wildlife in urban areas.

"They are finding the urban areas that have little scraps of habitat that they can making a living in," Kays said.

If Manhattan's newest interloper is caught and found to be healthy, city park rangers and animal control officers will release the coyote "into a wilderness area in a Bronx park," said Tara Kiernan, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

It didn't take long for New Yorkers to turn to social media with jokes about the coyote, including comparing the elusive critter to Dr. Richard Kimble, star of the Fugitive television series, who escaped after being wrongly convicted of his wife's murder and then sought a one-armed man who was the real killer.

"So, the little guy snuck away? And can we call him Dr. Richard Kimball after The Fugitive?" @westsiderag asked the police department's 24th Precinct on Twitter.

"The coyote actually told us that he did not kill his wife. Whatever that meant," @NYPD24Pct tweeted back.

"You need to look for the coyote with the prosthetic paw!" responded @westsiderag.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Sandra Maler)