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Photograph by Mircea Costina, Dreamstime

Coyotes on the Move

Research reveals a secret to coyote success.

By the early 1900s, people had wiped out nearly all the eastern wolves through hunting, trapping, and clear-cutting forest habitat. No more wolves meant no more fierce enemies for coyotes, so western coyotes successfully branched out toward the east to claim new territories.

A few wolves survived in the Great Lakes region. Lonely and isolated, these wolves bred with the coyote newcomers, and the coyote-wolf hybrid—also known as the eastern coyote or coywolf—was born.

Read more about these cunning coyotes. Learn more below about the differences between western and eastern coyotes and how you can tell if that canine at your local park is a coyote or just a stray dog.

Western vs. Eastern Coyote

Though eastern coyotes are still considered to be the same species as the western coyotes and retain the typical cleverness of any coyote, the eastern cousins do have a few different traits that developed as the animals and their descendants continued their expansion eastward after mixing with wolves. It looks like this “new” canine cousin of the western coyote may be so successful in the East because it combines coyote brains with wolf brawn.

According to Roland Kays, who directs the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, interbreeding between eastern wolves and western coyotes probably helped the new hybrid coyotes adapt to going after the prey that is easily available in the east. “The wolves passed on characteristics that made these coyotes slightly bigger,” Kays says. “That also resulted in wider skulls, which we think allows them to have a stronger jaw that can handle larger prey, such as deer.”

Identifying Coyotes

"Look, there's a coyote in our backyard!" Or is there?

Coyotes can be found living throughout most of North America today, but would you know how to spot one? Let's examine some of the signs ...

Tracks

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Illustration courtesy Purdue University department of entomology

As you can see from the graphic above, coyote tracks are similar to dog tracks. However, there are some differences you can look for. Compared to dog tracks, coyote tracks:

  • Are more oval-shaped, with the two middle claws being closer together
  • Have less prominent claws
  • Are more compact

Coyote tracks also tend to go in a straight line, whereas dogs tend to wander aimlessly.

Note that eastern coyote tracks can be up to 3.5 inches (9 centimeters), or an inch (2.5 centimeters) longer than those of the western coyote.

Tails

Coyotes typically carry their tail downward whereas dogs typically carry their tail up in the air.

Talking

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Photograph by Mikael Males, Dreamstime

The coyote's scientific name, Canis latrans, means "barking dog." While they can bark like dogs, coyotes also produce high-pitched, loud yips and howls. A mated pair of coyotes will produce a group "yip-howl," whereby the male howls and the female adds in yips, yaps, and barks.

Portions of this story were taken from the "Top Dogs" article written by Karen De Seve in the September 2014 issue of Nat Geo Kids magazine.