Scientific Name: Canis latrans
Common Name: Coyote
(Information for this species page was gathered by Ms. Sarah Bousfield as part of an assignment for Biology 220W, Spring 2007)
The coyote (Canis latrans) is a medium-sized canine that is 32 to 37 inches long with a drooping, bushy tail that is an additional 16 inches long. Mature coyotes weigh between 25 and 50 pounds and stand 15 to 20 inches at the shoulder (males are larger than females). They are gray-brown to yellow-gray in color with white throats and underbellies and reddish-brown foot, foreleg, head and muzzle highlights. Their tails are tipped in black, and they have black-tipped guard hairs down their backs and over their shoulders. Their ears are very large and pointed, and their muzzles are long and slender. Coyotes have smaller feet than dogs of similar weights and make tracks that are compact and oval (not round like a dog’s track) and 2 ½ inches long and 2 inches wide. Coyote tracks have distinct toe-claw marks and a very symmetrical overall appearance. When running, coyotes’ carry their tails below the horizontal line of their backs (another characteristic that distinguishes coyotes from dogs or wolves).
Coyotes eat almost any type of food: small mammals (rodents, rabbits, woodchucks, raccoons, etc), large mammals (white-tailed deer, calves, lambs), fruit, green plants and tree leaves, invertebrates, carrion, and, in urban environments, garbage and house pets. Many coyotes will change their diets through the seasons of the year in order to take advantage of the easiest to acquire and most abundant type of food.
Range and Habitat
Coyotes can live in deserts, grasslands, forests, swamps, farmlands, and urban and suburban areas. They are naturally cautious around people and use their excellent senses of vision, smell, and hearing to avoid human contact whenever possible. In some urban and suburban areas, though, this avoidance instinct has been blunted by the coyote’s experience of human-generated food supplies (garbage, handouts, house pets). They have become, then, increasingly bold in their approaches to people.
Coyotes are iconic species of the Great Plains and the desert southwest. The image of a coyote silhouetted against a moon-lit landscape raising its head to howl is an enduring symbol of the Wild West. It is surprising to many people, then, to learn that coyotes have expanded their range across the United States and now can be found in some abundance all the way into our large northeastern cities. The present range of the coyote now extends from Central America all the way up to the Arctic Circle. Why has this species been able to expand its range so far and so fast? One reason has to do with the phenomenal ability of the coyote to live and find food in almost any habitat. A second reason involves the reduction and in many places extirpation of large predators (like mountain lions and wolves) that might compete and even prey upon coyotes.
Coyotes are nocturnal and typically hunt either alone or in pairs. When not rearing pups they usually do not have elaborate dens or even rigidly defined or defended home territories. A coyote will have a well concealed sleeping site which it passes the daylight hours and hunting territories to which it will regularly return as long as food is abundant. Whelping dens are often formed by enlarging abandoned woodchuck or badger burrows.
Female coyotes go into heat once a year (usually between late January and late March). They are reproductively receptive for 2 to 5 days. During this same period of time males will begin to synthesize sperm. A mated pair of coyotes may stay together for several years but not necessarily for life. Gestation takes 60 to 63 days, and litters may range from 1 to 19 pups. The pups emerge from the dens after 3 or 4 weeks and are weaned shortly thereafter. Both parents (and often additional adults that are assisting the care and rearing of the pups) bring food to the den and regurgitate it for the growing pups. The pups are fully grown by 9 to 12 months. Males leave the den when they are 6 to 9 months old while females may stay with the denning group to form a family pack. Pups become sexually mature by 1 year of age. Although coyotes can live 10 to 15 years in the wild, very few of the pups born each year (5 to 20%) survive their first year of life.
Coyotes can mate with both domesticated dogs and wolves and can produce reproductively viable offspring from those matings. It has been hypothesized that the increased body size seen in the “eastern coyote” (the coyote that is seen in the expanded range to the north and east in the United States) is due to the hybridization of the western coyote with wolves. Examination of mitochondrial DNA (which is only inherited from the maternal linage) shows that coyote mitochondrial DNA occurs in wolves but that wolf mitochondrial DNA does not occur in coyotes. Crosses between coyotes and wolves, then had to occur when large, male wolves mated with much smaller female coyotes, but that male coyotes could not mate with larger female wolves.
Coyotes make a wide range of vocalizations (their species name, “latrans,” in fact, is Latin for “barking”). Coyotes howl when declaring territory or when greeting a mate or pack member. They make short, high pitched yelps when playing or interacting in small groups (probably a sound of joy or anger), and will bark when exhibiting threat displays while they protect a den or a large kill. They also make a quiet huffing sound when they call to their pups.
Coyotes are subject to and can be infectious reservoirs for a large number of diseases. Rabies, parvovirus, mange, hookworm, heartworm, distemper, toxoplasmosis, giardiasis and more have all been detected in or associated with coyotes.