San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide
Coyote photo by Richard Herrmann

Canis latrans
Coyote; Prairie Wolf; Brush Wolf

Range and Habitat

The coyote (Canis latrans) enjoys the most extensive natural range of any terrestrial mammal. These medium-sized canids are currently found across most of the continental United States and Canada, and southward to the Isthmus of Panama. There is significant variation in size between coyotes from different regions. The largest come from northern environs where individuals weighing up to 75 pounds (34 kg, the size of a small female gray wolf Canis lupus) have been recorded. Those from the arid regions of Mexico, on the other hand, average 25 pounds (11.5 kg). Coyotes average 20 inches (51 cm) at the shoulder with a body and tail length of 3-1/2 feet (1.07 m).

The coyote is extremely adaptable and intelligent. Their opportunistic nature has allowed them to greatly increase their range and the variety of habitats they occupy in the past century. Their ability to thrive in close proximity to human activity makes it certain that coyotes will continue to be familiar animals in the American landscape.

Coyotes were a distinct species by the late Pliocene, 2.3 million years ago, at which time they diverged from their common ancestor with the gray wolf. The naturalist Say described coyotes as a distinct species in 1832 (Young & Jackson, 1951). The name coyote is a corruption of the ancient Aztec word coyotl, which means "barking dog."

Natural History

Coyotes are opportunistic predators and scavengers. When prey is scarce, coyotes will eliminate competing predators like foxes or bobcats. When hunting, coyotes often work in pairs to procure their prey. One animal will set off in pursuit of a rabbit or other prey item while the other animal cuts the prey off as it attempts to flee. This tactic is repeated until the prey animal becomes exhausted and is readily subdued. In addition to hunting rabbits and rodents, which comprise the majority of the coyotes’ diet, they will consume whatever they can catch. Coyotes readily consume carrion, and also eat vegetable material and invertebrates. In general, coyotes are nocturnal and crepuscular, though it is not uncommon to see a coyote moving about during daylight hours, especially during cooler winter weather.

Coyotes originally evolved as denizens of open country and grasslands in the western part of North America. Because of this basic adaptation, they are among the fastest terrestrial mammals in North America, capable of attaining speeds of up to 64 mph (Zeveloff, 1988). Originally, the coyote’s range was limited by the presence of the larger and more powerful gray wolf in the east and north, and the red wolf (Canis rufus) in the south. The decline and eventual extirpation of gray and red wolf populations after the coming of European settlers allowed the adaptable coyotes to significantly expand their range and occupy more diverse habitats during the 20th century. Today, in addition to open country and grasslands, coyotes are found in forests, deserts, agricultural areas, and urban environments. Coyotes’ extreme adaptability makes them tolerant of human activities and of human-caused habitat changes.

Breeding: Coyotes are, in general, monogamous. Pair bonds frequently last for many years, though not necessarily for life. Mating takes place in January and February when females ovulate. During pregnancy, which lasts 60 to 65 days, the male and female stay together and prepare a den for their coming pups. In late pregnancy, the male may hunt alone and bring food to the female. Coyote litters typically range in size from 5 to 10 pups. Pups are born blind, helpless, hairless, and toothless. By two weeks of age, pups have their eyes open and have begun teething. By their third week they are able to move around and leave the den with their parents. Coyote parents teach their pups basic hunting and survival skills during their first summer. By August or September, the litter will gradually begin to disperse as individual pups become independent. It is at this state that young coyotes are the most vulnerable. Many relatively inexperienced yearling coyotes fall prey to traps, poisons, shooting, and highway accidents. Those that survive can expect a lifespan of 12 to 15 years.

"Coyotes are as versatile in their eating habits as rats, pigs and man.”
—H.T. Gier, Ecology and Behavior of the Coyote, in The Wild Canids, Van Nostrand, Reinhold, N.Y. 1975.


Text by Steven Joines
Photo credit: © Richard Herrmann

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