Learn More About: Coyotes
Species: Canis latrans
Gray Wolf: Canis lupus
Red Wolf: Canis rufus
Dog: Canis familiaris
Red Fox: Vulpes vulpes
Gray Fox: Urocyon cinereoargenteus
The word "coyote" is derived from the Aztec word "coyotl".
Coyote in the Mojave Desert
Origins and Evolution
Fossil evidence suggest that the genus Canis arose in the late Miocene period in North America. At some point at least one species of Canis emigrated to the Eurasian continent across the Bering Land Bridge, giving rise eventually to the European, Asian, and African canids.
Coyotes evolved exclusively from the Canis species which remained in North America, possibly from an extinct species known as C. leophagus (cat-eater). Other species which evolved in North America may include the Red Wolf (Canis rufus), and the Dire Wolf (Canis dirus), now extinct.
The gray wolf evolved in Eurasia and re-entered the North American continent via the Bering Land Bridge sometime in the early Pleistocene period. The domestic dog (Canis familiaris) in all its forms evolved from the gray wolf. It was almost certainly present in some form by the end of the Pleistocene, 12,000 years ago.
At the end of the Pleistocene, the Dire Wolf became extinct. Examination of its skull shows modifications for powerful chewing muscles and extreme tooth wear, suggesting that it might have filled a niche that included cracking the bones of large terrestrial mammals. As those mammals (such as giant ground sloths) became extinct, the niche disappeared and the swifter wolves and more versatile coyotes out-competed the Dire Wolf.
The coyote has survived to the present day despite habitat and hunting pressure, and has actually increased its home range within historical times, if not its absolute numbers.
Coyotes look like medium-sized dogs (see photos) with a black stripe often running down the back and through the tail. They can weigh from 20-50 pounds as adults; desert-dwelling coyotes tend to be smaller than their arctic cousins. Males are larger and heavier than females.
They can run at speeds of up to 40 mph for short distances and can jump up to 12 feet. Coyotes, like dogs, use body language for communication, including the large, bushy tail. The tail becomes more bushy and the tail may be held straight out when the coyote is indicating agression or fear. Coyotes also have a distinctive howl, consisting of yips and yodels.
Geographic Range: Historic, recent past, and current.
The coyote originated in North America. They originally ranged throughout the northwestern U.S. and Canada. Today, they are found throughout Central America, all of the contiguous United States, and Canada except for the Arctic Circle. This makes it the most widely-distributed carnivore in the Western Hemisphere.
Previous to the 1900s, coyotes were found chiefly to the west of the Mississippi. In the last 200 years, the coyote has extended its range to include the eastern and southern United States. This expansion in habitat has apparently been brought about by the actions of humankind, who have both opened up dense forestland through timbering, creating open habitats preferred by coyotes, and have exterminated many of the coyote's chief competitors, including wolves. In addition, predator control techniques may have produced a surviving sample of coyotes that are alert, wary, intelligent, and adaptable.
Coyotes are primarily carnivorous, but will eat fruit and other vegetable matter as well as scavenging. A large part of their diet consists of small mammals such as mice and ground squirrels. They also eat birds, lizards, snakes, and even insects and domestic pets when they are presented with the opportunity. They typically hunt alone or in pairs, sometimes in family units or pack-like associations.
Hunting often occurs along established routes, which are marked with urine and scat left directly in the trail. Hunting also takes place around the den during the spring.
When hunting small animals in snow or brush, the coyote may rely upon its sense of smell, suddenly leaping into the air and coming down with both front paws and nose held together when the prey is located. Coyotes have been observed chasing deer in turns until it tires, and a single coyote may attempt to take down a fawn. Coyotes may form partnerships to flush prey out of heavy brush as well, then take turns catching and consuming the fleeing animals. Most of the hunting is done during the hours on either side of dawn and dusk and during periods at night, with periods of inactivity interspersed throughout. All-in-all, hunting methodology and prey taken is variable depending on habitat.
Denning and Family Life:
Coyotes choose a single mate, although they will often take another if the chosen one dies. Females may use old dens dug by other animals or dig their own, or they may use dens for generations, passed on from mother to daughter. The den usually has several entrances.
After mating in the winter (January through March), pups are born in April or May. Pups are much like domestic dog puppies, completely helpless. Average litter size is six. The father provides food but doesn't enter the den. The pups stay in the den until about 10 weeks old. Families hunt together through the summer, after which males leave the family and establish their own territories close by. At least one female pup often stays with the parents and provides help with the next season's litter.
Most pups don't survive: up to 70% die within the first year (and 80% of those are killed by human beings). Sexual maturity is reached by 12 months. If the pups live to adulthood, they can live up to 10 years in the wild (they've lived up to 18 years in captivity). Coyotes can mate with other canids, but there's evidence that, while the offspring is fertile, fecundity (the number of young produced) is low. That's why there are still plenty of genetically-pure coyotes around.
Coyotes who learn that they can get food from human beings sometimes become beggars. They hang around areas where they can come in contact with sympathetic humans, like this coyote lying in a roadway - she's discovered that cars will slow or stop for her. Often, these coyotes either get hit by cars and injured, dooming them to a life of begging and pain, or they become so malnourished that they can no longer hunt for themselves. This coyote has a broken right rear leg from being hit by a car. It has formed a "false joint", and she can put a small amount of weight on it, but it will never be truly functional. She has survived over the last year and a half by begging, but is substantially smaller than her female companion.
Why Litter Is Bad
This "scat", or coyote dropping, was found in a desert wash near a popular hiking area. The coyote apparently ate a hamburger wrapper, part of which it later passed. How much of this trash do you think remains in the coyote's system?