Coyote vs. Wolf: Differences in Size, Habitat and Behavior

A coyote with grey-brown fur and a reddish brown face stands in tall grass
Can you tell if this is a coyote or a wolf? Troy Harrison / Getty Images

Coyotes and wolves share a closely related evolutionary history. But if you study coyote vs. wolf characteristics further, you'll discover there are important differences between the two canid species — namely, in their physical characteristics, behaviors and habitats.

Genetic studies have confirmed the two species are members of the dog family (genus Canis), meaning you can trace the lineage of wolves (Canis lupus) and coyotes (Canis latrans) to a common ancestor.

At a certain point, the species began diverging, with wolves becoming the larger of the two and preferring remote environments, and coyotes evolving to be much smaller, with the ability to adapt to more urban environments. Read on to learn more about what sets these canines apart from each other.

5 Ways to Distinguish Between Coyotes and Wolves

Here are some of the major physical differences between wolves and coyotes.

1. Coyotes Are Much Smaller Than Wolves.

When comparing their sizes, you’ll find adult wolves outrank coyotes in every single way. A coyote stands at 24 inches (61 cm) at the shoulder and measures 3.3 to 4.3 feet (1 to 1.3 meters) long, whereas a wolf may be as tall as 30 inches (76 cm) at the shoulder and closer to 6.6 feet (2 meters) long.

A wolf carries more heft, too. The Canadian timber wolf can tip the scales at 175 pounds (79.4 kg), making it one of the world's largest wolves. Adult coyotes tend to be leaner, maxing out at around 50 pounds (22.7 kg).

Despite this difference in weight, the animals’ top running speeds are closer than you might guess: 40 miles (64 km) per hour for a coyote and 37 miles (60 km) per hour for a wolf.

2. Wolves Have Thicker Coats Compared to Coyotes.

In general, coyotes’ coats are thinner, helping them to regulate their body temperature in arid habitats. Wolves, on the other hand, have thicker coats, especially in colder climates, where their dense fur insulates them against the harsh weather conditions.

In terms of color, the animals’ coats can appear similar. Coyote coats are usually a mix of grays and browns but can also include some red or tan, while wolves’ coats may include shades of gray, brown, black, white or red. In both cases, the mix of colors helps the species blend into their environments.

3. Wolves’ Heads Are Bigger and Broader.

Coyote heads are relatively smaller in proportion to their bodies, although their ears are larger and more prominent relative to their own head size. They also have a more pointed and narrow snout, which aids in their ability to forage and catch small prey.

In contrast, wolf heads are larger and more pronounced in proportion to the size of their bodies, with broader snouts and powerful jaws that enable them to tackle larger prey. Compared to coyotes, wolves have shorter and less prominent ears; while still effective, their sense of hearing may not be as finely tuned.

4. Coyotes Yip, Whereas Wolves Howl.

When coyotes howl, their vocalizations sound higher-pitched or even squeaky compared to the deep, mournful-sounding howls of wolves. Coyotes are more famous for their yips, yelps and barks, which alert pack members to danger or help coordinate their group during a hunt.

By contrast, wolves are crooners, known for their haunting howls that echo through the wilderness. These sounds facilitate long-distance communication and reinforce social bonds within the wolf pack. Like other canines, wolves produce sharp barks, growls, and whines for intra-pack communication; however, their hallmark trait is synchronized, almost harmonic group howling.

5. Coyote Tracks Tend to Be More Oval, While Wolf Tracks Are More Rounded.

Coyote footprints are roughly 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) long by 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide and more compact than those of wolves. They have four relatively straight and elongated toes and distinct claw marks — signs of their adaptability for both digging and hunting.

Standard wolf tracks look similar but measure about 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide and 5 inches (12 centimeters) long, making coyote tracks appear positively pint-sized by comparison. The larger prints reflect the heavier size of the species, with toes that appear more splayed, creating a broader, more circular impression.

Claw marks are less noticeable on wolf tracks because they have more padding on their feet.

Common Wolf Species

Here are some of the most common species of wolves.

Gray Wolves (Canis lupus)

The largest of the wolf species, a gray wolf has a coat that might actually display a variety of colors, including gray, brown, black and white. It's also the most widespread species, inhabiting forests, tundra and grasslands, with gray wolf populations in North America, Eurasia and parts of Africa.

Arctic Wolves (Canis lupus arctos)

As their name suggests, Arctic wolves are well-adapted to cold climates, even having white coats for camouflage in snowy environments. They live across the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland.

Mexican Gray Wolves (Canis lupus baileyi)

Smaller than a gray wolf, a Mexican gray wolf has distinctive facial markings and a coat that ranges from light gray to tan. This species has historically lived in the southwestern United States and Mexico, but dangerously low population numbers have necessitated ongoing reintroduction efforts in recent years.

Red Wolves (Canis rufus)

These medium-sized wolves with reddish-brown coats call the southeastern United States home, particularly in the forests and wetlands. Critically endangered, red wolves are the subject of multiple conservation efforts focused on preventing extinction through breeding programs and habitat preservation.

Common Coyote Species

Here are a few of the most common members of the coyote family.

Eastern Coyotes (Canis latrans thamnos)

Larger than their western counterparts, these coyotes live in the eastern regions of North America, including in forests, suburbs, and rural areas.

With fur that comes in a mix of colors ranging from gray to reddish-brown, they are adaptable omnivores that will scavenge in human-populated areas, feeding on small mammals, birds and fruit.

Western Coyotes (Canis latrans)

Generally smaller than eastern coyotes, with grayish-brown coats and a more slender build, western coyotes live in desert, grassland and mountainous regions across the western part of North America.

Like their cousins on the other side of the country, western coyotes are capable of adapting to many different environments and often make their way into urban areas.

Mexican Coyotes (Canis latrans cagottis)

Smaller than both eastern and western coyotes, Mexican coyotes feature a light gray to tan coat. In their native Mexico, they live in the forest and desert, preying mainly on small mammals and birds.

Differences in Diet and Hunting Patterns

Coyotes and wolves have distinct diet preferences and hunting techniques. Coyotes, with their generally smaller bodies and better agility, favor smaller prey, such as small mammals. They're skilled scavengers, too, known to frequent kill sites left by other predators.

In contrast, wolves, with their larger body shape and bigger ears, require more sizable feasts. They form packs to hunt collaboratively, showcasing a sophisticated strategy when tackling large ungulates (hoofed mammals). This makes them some of the most efficient predators in the animal kingdom.

Habitat Preferences

In the wild, coyotes and wolves claim distinct territories. Coyotes thrive across a wide range of climates and environments in North America and Central America. In the United States, people have spotted the species in 49 of the 50 states.

Wolves, on the other hand, prefer more secluded habitats, such as the remote wilderness of Eurasia, the northern reaches of North America, and northeastern Africa.

Coyote Populations vs. Wolf Populations

It's difficult to say how many coyotes live in the wild, given their large numbers. In North America alone, their habitat has seen a 40 percent increase since the 1950s, and experts estimate that there might be between 2.8 million and 4.7 million living just in the U.S.

Where wolves are concerned, the story is different. Globally, there are 200,000 to 250,000 wolves living in a range that continues to shrink due to urban development and habitat destruction.

Breeding and Social Structures

Coyotes are monogamous and exhibit pair bonding, whereas wolves allow the alpha male and female — the leaders of the pack — to be the primary breeders. For both species, mating season occurs in late winter with litters born in the spring, usually four to seven pups per female.

However, the animals take different approaches to raising their young.

Among coyotes, caring for newborns is a joint effort, with both parents actively contributing to their care. Wolves, on the other hand, follow a different social order: Other wolves within the pack will help the alpha couple care for and protect their wolf pups. This cooperation fosters strong social bonds and better ensures the survival of their offspring.

Human Interaction and Incidents

Wolves tend to avoid interaction with people, while coyotes' adaptability to urban landscapes increases the likelihood of encounters. To avoid an up-close-and-personal visit with either species, experts encourage people to refrain from leaving food out and to secure their trash.

Wolves and coyotes rarely attack humans, but incidents do occur. Between 2002 and 2020, there were 26 fatal wolf attacks worldwide, with the most (12) occurring in Turkey. Compare this to the more than two dozen coyote attacks (none of them fatal) that occurred in 2015 in the U.S. and Canada.

Coyote vs. Wolf: Conservation Status

In terms of their worldwide population numbers, wolves are under much greater threat than coyotes. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Endangered Species List classifies coyotes as a “least concern” animal, noting that the species' populations are even increasing.

Meanwhile, wolves have been classified as an endangered species since the 1970s, due to historical habitat destruction and other conflicts with humans.

Both coyotes and wolves benefit from conservation efforts, with the approaches understandably being different. Conservation programs for wolves focus on habitat preservation and reintroduction initiatives, while programs for coyotes are more focused on fostering a peaceful coexistence with humans.

Although adaptable to urban environments, coyotes still face similar threats from habitat loss and human-wildlife conflicts, necessitating community education around reducing attractants (such as unsecured trash) and protecting natural resources.

In general, the idea is to preserve coyote and wolf populations while encouraging humans to practice responsible behavior in shared spaces.

Cultural Symbolism

Wolves and coyotes hold rich symbolism in various cultures and folklore. A "lone wolf" figure often symbolizes independence and self-reliance, while the "alpha male" of a pack embodies leadership and strength. In fiction, these predators are sometimes cast as the villain; at other times, a lone wolf can be a symbol of heroism and spiritual awakening.

Coyotes, known for their adaptability, feature prominently in Native American folklore, sometimes representing resourcefulness. In some traditions, they are seen as trickster figures with the ability to transform and navigate between worlds.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Coyote vs. Wolf: Differences in Size, Habitat and Behavior

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