The coyote (Canis latrans), also known as the prairie wolf, is a mammal of the order Carnivora. The species is found throughout North and Central America, ranging from Panama in the south, north through Mexico, the United States, and Canada. It occurs as far north as Alaska and all but the northernmost portions of Canada. There are currently 19 recognized subspecies, with 16 in Canada, Mexico and the United States, and 3 in Central America. Unlike its cousin the grey wolf, which is Eurasian in origin, the coyote evolved in North America 2 MYA alongside the Dire Wolf. It is thought by certain experts that the coyotes North American origin may account for its greater adaptability than the wolf, due to North America's greater prehistoric predation pressures.
The color of the coyote's pelt varies from grayish brown to yellowish gray on the upper parts, while the throat and belly tend to have a buff or white color. The forelegs, sides of the head, muzzle and feet are reddish brown. The back has tawn-colored underfur and long, black-tipped guard hairs that form a black dorsal stripe and a dark cross on the shoulder area. The black-tipped tail has a scent gland located on its dorsal base. Coyotes shed once a year, beginning in May with light hair loss, ending in July after heavy shedding. The ears are proportionately large in relation to the head, while the feet are relatively small in relation to the rest of the body. Mountain dwelling coyotes tend to be dark furred while desert coyotes tend to be more yellowish in color.
Coyotes typically grow from 75–87 centimeters (30–34 inches) in length and on average, weigh from 7–21 kilograms (15–46 pounds). Northern coyotes are typically larger than southern subspecies, with the largest coyotes on record weighing 74¾ pounds (33.7 kg) and measuring over five feet in total length. The coyote's dental formula is I 3/3, C 1/1, Pm 4/4, M usually 2/2, occasionally 3/3, 3/2, or 2/3 X 2 = 40, 42, or 44. Normal spacing between the upper canine teeth is 1⅛ to 1⅜ inches (29 to 35 mm) and 1 to 1¼ inches (25 to 32 mm) between the lower canine teeth. The upper frequency limit of hearing for coyotes is 80 kHZ, compared to the 60 kHz of domestic dogs.
Unlike wolves, but similarly to domestic dogs, coyotes have sweat glands on their paw pads. This trait is however absent in the large New England coyotes which are thought to have some wolf ancestry.
During pursuit, a coyote may reach speeds up to 43 mph (69 kph), and can jump over 4 meters (13⅛ feet).
Though coyotes have been observed to travel in large groups, they primarily hunt in pairs. Typical packs consist of six closely related adults, yearlings and young. Coyote packs are generally smaller than wolf packs and associations between individuals are less stable. It has been theorized that this is due to an earlier expression of aggression, and the fact that coyotes reach their full growth in their first year, unlike wolves who reach it in their second. Common names of coyote groups are a band, a pack, or a rout. Coyotes are primarily nocturnal but can occasionally be seen during daylight hours. Coyotes were once essentially diurnal, but have adapted to more nocturnal behavior with pressure from humans (McClennen et al, 2001).
Coyotes are capable of digging their own burrows, though they often appropriate the burrows of woodchucks or American badgers. Coyote territorial ranges can be as much as 19 kilometers in diameter around the den and travel occurs along fixed trails.
In areas where wolves have been exterminated, coyotes usually flourish. For example, as New England became increasingly settled and the resident wolves were eliminated, the coyote population increased, filling the empty biological niche. Coyotes appear better able than wolves to live among people.
Coyotes have been known to live a maximum of 10 years in the wild and 18 years in captivity. They seem to be better than dogs at observational learning.
Coyotes will sometimes mate with domestic dogs, usually in areas like Texas and Oklahoma where the coyotes are plentiful and the breeding season is extended because of the warm weather. The resulting hybrids called coydogs maintain the coyote's predatory nature, along with the dog's lack of timidity toward humans, making them a more serious threat to livestock than pure blooded animals. This cross breeding has the added effect of confusing the breeding cycle. Coyotes usually breed only once a year, while coydogs will breed year-round, producing many more pups than a wild coyote. Differences in the ears and tail are generally what can be used to distinguish coydogs from domestic/feral dogs or pure coyotes.
Coyotes have also been known on occasion to mate with wolves though this is less common as with dogs due to the wolf's hostility to the coyote. The offspring, known as a coywolf, is generally intermediate in size to both parents, being larger than a pure coyote, but smaller than a pure wolf. A study showed that of 100 coyotes collected in Maine, 22 had half or more wolf ancestry, and one was 89 percent wolf. A theory has been proposed that the large eastern coyotes in Canada are actually hybrids of the smaller western coyotes and wolves that met and mated decades ago as the coyotes moved toward New England from their earlier western ranges. The Red Wolf is thought by certain scientists to be in fact a wolf/coyote hybrid rather than a unique species. Strong evidence for hybridization was found through genetic testing which showed that red wolves have only 5% of their alleles unique from either grey wolves or coyotes. Genetic distance calculations have indicated that red wolves are intermediate between coyotes and grey wolves, and that they bear great similarity to wolf/coyote hybrids in southern Quebec and Minnesota. Analyses of mitochondrial DNA showed that existing Red Wolf populations are predominantly coyote in origin.
Coyotes are versatile carnivores with a 90% mammalian diet, depending on the season. They primarily eat small mammals, such as voles, eastern cottontails, ground squirrels, and mice, though they will eat birds, snakes, lizards, deer, javelina, and livestock as well as large insects and other large invertebrates. Though they will consume large amounts of carrion, they tend to prefer fresh meat. Part of the coyote's success as a species is its dietary adaptability. As such, coyotes have been known to eat human rubbish and domestic pets. Fruits and vegetables are a significant part of the coyote's diet in the autumn and winter months.
Coyotes shift their hunting techniques in accordance to their prey. When hunting small animals such as mice, they slowly stalk through the grass and use their acute sense of smell to track down the prey. When the prey is located, the coyotes stiffen and pounce on the prey in a cat-like manner. Coyotes will commonly work in teams when hunting large ungulates such as deer. Coyotes may take turns in baiting and pursuing the deer to exhaustion, or they may drive it towards a hidden member of the pack. When attacking large prey, coyotes attack from the rear and the flanks of their prey. Occasionally they also grab the neck and head, pulling the animal down to the ground. Coyotes are persistent hunters, with successful attacks sometimes lasting from 14 minutes to about 21 hours; even unsuccessful ones can vary from 2 minutes to more than 8 hours before the coyotes give up. Depth of snow can affect the likelihood of a successful kill.
The average distance covered in a night's hunting is 4 km (2½ mi).
The gray wolf is a significant predator of coyotes wherever their ranges overlap. Since the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Reintroduction in 1995 and 1996, the local coyote population went through a dramatic restructuring. Until the wolves returned, Yellowstone National Park had one of the densest and most stable coyote populations in America due to a lack of human impacts. Two years after the wolf reintroductions, 50% of the pre-wolf population of coyotes had been reduced, through both competitive exclusion and predation. In Grand Teton, coyote densities were 33% lower than normal in the areas where they coexisted with wolves, and 39% lower in the areas of Yellowstone where wolves were reintroduced. In one study, about 16% of radio-collared coyotes were preyed upon by wolves. Yellowstone coyotes have had to shift their territories as a result, moving from open meadows to steep terrain. Carcasses in the open no longer attract coyotes; when a coyote is chased on flat terrain, it is often killed. They feel more secure on steep terrain where they will often lead a pursuing wolf downhill. As the wolf comes after it, the coyote will turn around and run uphill. Wolves, being heavier, cannot stop and the coyote gets a huge lead. Though physical confrontations between the two species are usually dominated by the larger wolves, coyotes have been known to attack wolves if they outnumber them. Both species will kill each other's pups given the opportunity. Wolf urine has been marketed and claimed to be an organic coyote deterrent, such as for deterring attacks on sheep.
Cougars sometimes kill coyotes. The coyote's instinctive fear of cougars has led to the development of anti-coyote sound systems which repel coyotes from public places by replicating the sounds of a cougar.
In sympatric populations of coyotes and red foxes, fox territories tend to be located largely outside of coyote territories. The principal cause of this separation is believed to be active avoidance of coyotes by the foxes. Interactions between the two species vary in nature, ranging from active antagonism to indifference. The majority of aggressive encounters are initiated by coyotes, and there are few reports of red foxes acting aggressively toward coyotes except when attacked or when their pups were approached. Conversely, foxes and coyotes have sometimes been seen feeding together.
Coyotes will sometimes form a symbiotic relationship with American badgers. Because coyotes are not very effective at digging rodents out of their burrows, they will chase the animals while they are above ground. Badgers on the other hand are not fast runners, but are well-adapted to digging. When hunting together, they effectively leave little escape for prey in the area.
In some areas, coyotes share their ranges with bobcats. It is rare for these two similarly sized species to physically confront one another, though bobcat populations tend to diminish in areas with high coyote densities. Coyotes (both single individuals and groups) have been known to occasionally kill bobcats, but in all known cases, the victims were relatively small specimens, such as adult females and juveniles.
Coyotes have also competed with and occasionally eaten Canadian lynxes in areas where both species overlap.
Despite being extensively hunted, the coyote is one of the few medium-to-large-sized animals that has enlarged its range since human encroachment began. It originally ranged primarily in the western half of North America, but it has adapted readily to the changes caused by human occupation and, since the early 19th century, has been steadily and dramatically extending its range. Sightings now commonly occur in California, Oregon, New England, New Jersey, and eastern Canada. Coyotes have been seen in nearly every continental U.S. state, including Alaska. Coyotes have moved into most of the areas of North America formerly occupied by wolves, and are often observed foraging in suburban trashcans.
Coyotes also thrive in suburban settings and even some urban ones. A study by wildlife ecologists at Ohio State University yielded some surprising findings in this regard. Researchers studied coyote populations in Chicago over a seven-year period (2000–2007), proposing that coyotes have adapted well to living in densely populated urban environments while avoiding contact with humans. They found, among other things, that urban coyotes tend to live longer than their rural counterparts, kill rodents and small pets, and live anywhere from parks to industrial areas. The researchers estimate that there are up to 2,000 coyotes living in "the greater Chicago area" and that this circumstance may well apply to many other urban landscapes in North America. In Washington DC's Rock Creek Park, coyotes den and raise their young, scavenge roadkill, and hunt rodents. "I don't see it as a bad thing for a park," the assigned National Park Service biologist told a reporter for Smithsonian Magazine (March 2006). "I see it as good for keeping animal populations in control, like the squirrels and the mice." As a testament to the coyote's habitat adaptability, a coyote (known as "Hal the Central Park Coyote") was even captured in Manhattan's Central Park in March 2006 after being chased by city wildlife officials for two days.
Coyote attacks on humans are uncommon and rarely cause serious injuries, due to the relatively small size of the coyote. However, coyote attacks on humans have increased since 1998 in the state of California. Data from USDA Wildlife Services, the California Department of Fish & Game, and other sources show that while 41 attacks occurred during the period of 1988-1997, 48 attacks were verified from 1998 through 2003. The majority of these incidents occurred in Southern California near the suburban-wildland interface.
Due to an absence of harassment by residents, urban coyotes lose their natural fear of humans, which is further worsened by people intentionally feeding coyotes. In such situations, some coyotes begin to act aggressively toward humans, chasing joggers and bicyclists, confronting people walking their dogs, and stalking small children. Like wolves, non rabid coyotes usually target small children, mostly under the age of 10, though some adults have been bitten. Some attacks are serious enough to warrant 200 stitches.
There is currently only one recorded fatal attack on a human. In 1981 in Glendale, California, a coyote attacked a toddler, who despite being rescued by her father, died in surgery due to blood loss and a broken neck.
Coyotes will typically bite the throat just behind the jaw and below the ear when attacking adult sheep or goats, with death commonly resulting from suffocation. Blood loss is usually a secondary cause of death. Calves and heavily fleeced sheep are killed by attacking the flanks or hind-quarters, causing shock and blood loss. When attacking smaller prey, such as young lambs and kids, the kill is made by biting the skull and spinal regions, causing massive tissue and ossular damage. Small or young prey may be completely carried off, leaving only blood as evidence of a kill. Coyotes will usually leave the hide and most of the skeleton of larger animals relatively intact unless food is scarce, in which case they may leave only the largest bones. Scattered bits of wool, skin and other parts are characteristic where coyotes feed extensively on larger carcasses.
Coyote predation can usually be distinguished from dog or coydog predation by the fact that coyotes partially consume their victims. Tracks are also an important factor in distinguishing coyote from dog predation. Coyote tracks tend to be more oval-shaped and compact than those of domestic dogs, plus, claw marks are less prominent and the tracks tend to follow a straight line more closely than those of dogs. With the exception of sighthounds, most dogs of similar weight to coyotes have a slightly shorter stride. Coyote kills can be distinguished from wolf kills by the fact that there is less damage to the underlying tissues. Also, coyote scats tend to be smaller than wolf scats.
Coyotes are often attracted to dog food and animals that are small enough to appear as prey. Items like garbage, pet food and sometimes even feeding stations for birds and squirrels will attract coyotes into backyards. Approximately 3 to 5 pets attacked by coyotes are brought into the Animal Urgent Care hospital of South Orange County each week, the majority of which are dogs, since cats typically do not survive the attacks. Scat analysis collected near Claremont, California revealed that coyotes relied heavily on pets as a food source in winter and spring. At one location in Southern California, coyotes began relying on a colony of feral cats as a food source. Over time, the coyotes killed most of the cats and then continued to eat the cat food placed daily at the colony site by citizens who were maintaining the cat colony. Coyotes attack smaller or similar sized dogs and they have been known to attack even large, powerful breeds like the Rottweiler in exceptional cases. Dogs larger than coyotes are usually able to capably defend themselves, although small breeds are more likely to suffer injury or be killed by such attacks.
In the early days of European settlement in North Dakota, American Beavers were the most valued and sought after furbearers, though other species were also taken, including coyotes. Coyotes are an important furbearer in the region. During the 1983-86 seasons, North Dakota buyers purchased an average of 7,913 pelts annually, for an average annual combined return to takers of $255,458. In 1986-87, South Dakota buyers purchased 8,149 pelts for a total of $349,674 to takers.
The harvest of coyote pelts in Texas has varied over the past few decades, but has generally followed a downward trend. A study from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, however, found that there was no indication of population decline, and suggested that, as pelt prices were not increasing, the decrease in harvest was likely due to decreasing demand, and not increasing scarcity (where pelt prices would go up.) It suggested that fashion, and the changing custom of wearing fur garments, may be significant among these factors.
Today, coyote fur is still used for full coats and trim and is particularly popular for men’s coats.
Usually appearing as a trickster, a culture hero or both, Coyote also often appears in creation myths and etiological myths. Although usually appearing in stories as male, Coyote can also be female or even a hermaphrodite, in some traditional Native American stories.
"Coyote" is also a slang term for a person who smuggles illegal immigrants over the border from Mexico to the United States.
The Oken/Heller proposal of the new genus Thos did not affect the classification of the coyote. Gerrit S. Miller still had in his 1924 edition of List of North American Recent Mammals in the section “Genus Canis Linnaeas,” the subordinate heading “Subgenus Thos Oken” and backed it up with a reference to Heller. In the reworked version of the book in 1955, Philip Hershkovitz and Hartley Jackson led him to drop Thos both as an available scientific term and as a viable subgenus of Canis. In his definitive study of the taxonomy of the coyote, Jackson had, in response to Miller, queried whether Heller had seriously looked at specimens of coyotes prior to his 1914 article and thought the characters to be “not sufficiently important or stable to warrant subgeneric recognition for the group”.