The coyote (Canis latrans; from Nahuatl pronunciation (help·info)) is a canine native to North America. It is smaller than its close relative, the gray wolf, and slightly smaller than the closely related eastern wolf and red wolf. It fills much of the same ecological niche as the golden jackal does in Eurasia, though it is larger and more predatory, and is sometimes called the American jackal by zoologists.
The coyote is listed as least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to its wide distribution and abundance throughout North America, southwards through Mexico, and into Central America. The species is versatile, able to adapt to and expand into environments modified by humans. It is enlarging its range, with coyotes moving into urban areas in the Eastern U.S., and was sighted in eastern Panama (across the Panama Canal from their home range) for the first time in 2013.
As of 2005, 19 coyote subspecies are recognized. The average male weighs 8 to 20 kg (18 to 44 lb) and the average female 7 to 18 kg (15 to 40 lb). Their fur color is predominantly light gray and red or fulvous interspersed with black and white, though it varies somewhat with geography. It is highly flexible in social organization, living either in a family unit or in loosely knit packs of unrelated individuals. It has a varied diet consisting primarily of animal meat, including deer, rabbits, hares, rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates, though it may also eat fruits and vegetables on occasion. Its characteristic vocalization is a howl made by solitary individuals. Humans are the coyote’s greatest threat, followed by cougars and gray wolves. In spite of this, coyotes sometimes mate with gray, eastern, or red wolves, producing “coywolf” hybrids. In the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, the eastern coyote (a larger subspecies, though still smaller than wolves) is the result of various historical and recent matings with various types of wolves. Genetic studies show that most North American wolves contain some level of coyote DNA.
The coyote is a prominent character in Native American folklore, mainly in the Southwestern United States and Mexico, usually depicted as a trickster that alternately assumes the form of an actual coyote or a man. As with other trickster figures, the coyote uses deception and humor to rebel against social conventions. The animal was especially respected in Mesoamerican cosmology as a symbol of military might. After the European colonization of the Americas, it was reviled in Anglo-American culture as a cowardly and untrustworthy animal. Unlike wolves (gray, eastern, or red), which have undergone an improvement of their public image, attitudes towards the coyote remain largely negative.
Coyote males average 8 to 20 kg (18 to 44 lb) in weight, while females average 7 to 18 kg (15 to 40 lb), though size varies geographically. Northern subspecies, which average 18 kg (40 lb), tend to grow larger than the southern subspecies of Mexico, which average 11.5 kg (25 lb). Body length ranges on average from 1.0 to 1.35 m (3 ft 3 in to 4 ft 5 in), and tail length 40 cm (16 in), with females being shorter in both body length and height. The largest coyote on record was a male killed near Afton, Wyoming, on November 19, 1937, which measured 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) from nose to tail, and weighed 34 kg (75 lb). Scent glands are located at the upper side of the base of the tail and are a bluish-black color.
The color and texture of the coyote’s fur varies somewhat geographically. The hair’s predominant color is light gray and red or fulvous, interspersed around the body with black and white. Coyotes living at high elevations tend to have more black and gray shades than their desert-dwelling counterparts, which are more fulvous or whitish-gray. The coyote’s fur consists of short, soft underfur and long, coarse guard hairs. The fur of northern subspecies is longer and denser than in southern forms, with the fur of some Mexican and Central American forms being almost hispid (bristly). Generally, adult coyotes (including coywolf hybrids) have a sable coat color, dark neonatal coat color, bushy tail with an active supracaudal gland, and a white facial mask. Albinism is extremely rare in coyotes; out of a total of 750,000 coyotes killed by federal and cooperative hunters between March 22, 1938, and June 30, 1945, only two were albinos.
The coyote is typically smaller than the gray wolf, but has longer ears and a relatively larger braincase, as well as a thinner frame, face, and muzzle. The scent glands are smaller than the gray wolf’s, but are the same color. Its fur color variation is much less varied than that of a wolf. The coyote also carries its tail downwards when running or walking, rather than horizontally as the wolf does.
Coyote tracks can be distinguished from those of dogs by their more elongated, less rounded shape. Unlike dogs, the upper canines of coyotes extend past the mental foramina.
At the time of the European colonization of the Americas, coyotes were largely confined to open plains and arid regions of the western half of the continent. In early post-Columbian historical records, distinguishing between coyotes and wolves is often difficult. One record from 1750 in Kaskaskia, Illinois, written by a local priest, noted that the “wolves” encountered there were smaller and less daring than European wolves. Another account from the early 1800s in Edwards County mentioned wolves howling at night, though these were likely coyotes. This species was encountered several times during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), though it was already well known to European traders on the upper Missouri. Lewis, writing on 5 May 1805, in northeastern Montana, described the coyote in these terms:
The small woolf or burrowing dog of the prairies are the inhabitants almost invariably of the open plains; they usually ascociate in bands of ten or twelve sometimes more and burrow near some pass or place much frequented by game; not being able alone to take deer or goat they are rarely ever found alone but hunt in bands; they frequently watch and seize their prey near their burrows; in these burrows they raise their young and to them they also resort when pursued; when a person approaches them they frequently bark, their note being precisely that of the small dog. They are of an intermediate size between that of the fox and dog, very active fleet and delicately formed; the ears large erect and pointed the head long and pointed more like that of the fox; tale long … the hair and fur also resembles the fox, tho’ is much coarser and inferior. They are of a pale redish-brown colour. The eye of a deep sea green colour small and piercing. Their [claws] are reather longer than those of the ordinary wolf or that common to the Atlantic states, none of which are to be found in this quarter, nor I believe above the river Plat.
The coyote was first scientifically described by naturalist Thomas Say in September 1819, on the site of Lewis and Clark’s Council Bluffs, fifteen miles up the Missouri River from the mouth of the Platte during a government-sponsored expedition with Major Stephen Long. He had the first edition of the Lewis and Clark journals in hand, which contained Biddle’s edited version of Lewis’s observations dated 5 May 1805. His account was published in 1823. Say was the first person to document the difference between a “prairie wolf” (coyote) and on the next page of his journal a wolf which he named Canis nubilus (Great Plains wolf). Say described the coyote as:
Canis latrans. Cinereous or gray, varied with black above, and dull fulvous, or cinnamon; hair at base dusky plumbeous, in the middle of its length dull cinnamon, and at tip gray or black, longer on the vertebral line; ears erect, rounded at tip, cinnamon behind, the hair dark plumbeous at base, inside lined with gray hair; eyelids edged with black, superior eyelashes black beneath, and at tip above; supplemental lid margined with black-brown before, and edged with black brown behind; iris yellow; pupil black-blue; spot upon the lachrymal sac black-brown; rostrum cinnamon, tinctured with grayish on the nose; lips white, edged with black, three series of black seta; head between the ears intermixed with gray, and dull cinnamon, hairs dusky plumbeous at base; sidespaler than the back, obsoletely fasciate with black above the legs; legs cinnamon on the outer side, more distinct on the posterior hair: a dilated black abbreviated line on the anterior ones near the wrist; tail bushy, fusiform, straight, varied with gray and cinnamon, a spot near the base above, and tip black; the tip of the trunk of the tail, attains the tip of the os calcis, when the leg is extended; beneath white, immaculate, tail cinnamon towards the tip, tip black; posterior feet four toed, anterior five toed.
The earliest written reference to the species comes from the naturalist Francisco Hernández’s Plantas y Animales de la Nueva España (1651), where it is described as a “Spanish fox” or “jackal”. The first published usage of the word “coyote” (which is a Spanish borrowing of its Nahuatl name coyōtl) comes from the historian Francisco Javier Clavijero‘s Historia de México in 1780. The first time it was used in English occurred in William Bullock‘s Six months’ residence and travels in Mexico (1824), where it is variously transcribed as cayjotte and cocyotie. The word’s spelling was standardized as “coyote” by the 1880s. Alternative English names for the coyote include “prairie wolf”, “brush wolf”, “cased wolf”, “little wolf” and “American jackal”. Its binomial name Canis latrans translates to “barking dog”, a reference to the many vocalizations they produce.