Canis latrans (Coyote)
Written by Carlee Howard (Mammalogy Lab--Fall 2003)
Edited by Karah Gallagher and Jennifer Bailey
Map prepared by Greg T. Lewellen
Canis latrans are nearctic canids which means their location is in North America (Bekoff and Wells 1982; Bekoff 1995). Coyote means “barking dog” and is taken from the Aztec or Nahuatl Indian word “Coyotyl” (Bekoff 1977). Historically, coyotes inhabited the Great Plains of North America living in the open country and grasslands (Bekoff 1995; Bekoff 1978). Coyotes are able to live in many diverse habitats from 10° north latitude (Costa Rica) and 70° north latitude (northern Alaska) (Bekoff 1982; Bekoff 1977). In the states of Georgia and Florida, coyotes were transplanted by humans (Bekoff and Wells 1982; Bekoff 1977). As the coyotes moved east, they expanded into Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana which was unassisted by humans (Bekoff 1977). The highest population in North America of the Canis latrans is in the Great Plains and south-central United States (Voigt and Berg 1999). In recent years there have also been sightings of coyotes in large cities (Bekoff and Wells 1982) due to the removal of forest and clearing of crops and pastures (Bekoff 1978).
In the state of Texas, the distribution of Canis latrans is statewide (Davis and Schmildly 1994) which includes all six geographic regions: panhandle, Trans-Pecos, Edwards Plateau, south Texas, north Texas, and east Texas (Knowlton 1972). South Texas tends to have a more abundant population of coyotes than the panhandle, whereas coyotes are very scarce in the Edwards Plateau (Knowlton 1972).
Photo courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife © 2003
Canis latrans is considered a medium-sized mammal with erect pointed ears, slender muzzle and a bushy tail (Messier and Barrette 1982; Bowen 1980; Bekoff 1995). The pelage of the coyote is commonly grizzled gray, but changes in color are common due to their geographic location (Whitaker 1996). A long, rusty dark vertical line on the lower foreleg is located on the Canis latrans, while their belly is a light buff color (Voigt and Berg 1999). Their bushy tail (Whitaker 1996) and mane (Voigt and Berg 1999) have a black tip. In the summer, their hair is shorter and thinner than in the winter (Bekoff 1982). Their course hair is approximately 50-90 mm in length; the mane tends to be 80-110 mm (Bekoff 1982).
The coyote skull is typically long, with a gently sloping forehead and prominent canine teeth. The dental formula is incisors 3/3, canines 1/1, premolars 4/4, molars 2/3; total of 42 teeth (Davis and Schmildly 1994; Bekoff 1982).
The measurements of Canis latrans are: 121.9 centimeters in total length (Davis and Schmildly 1994), height 105-132 cm, tail 30-39 cm, hindfoot 18-22 cm, and the nose pad 2.5 cm (Whitaker 1996). Sizes will vary according to the geographic region that they live in. A male tends to weigh more and be longer in length than a female coyote. The average Canis latrans male weighs 16.75 kilograms and a female weighs 13.62 kilograms in Texas (Bekoff 1977).
The tracks of a coyote are nearly in a straight line, including four toe prints each with a claw. The hindprints, which are slightly smaller than the foreprint, will usually come down in the foreprints, are 62 millimeters long (Whitaker 1996). The straddle of a Canis latrans is about 150-200 millimeters and their stride when walking is 330 millimeters long. As a coyote begins to trot, their stride reaches 600 millimeters and while running their stride is 750 millimeters (Whitaker 1996). A coyote can reach up to speed of 50 miles per hour (Fisher 1975; Sooter 1943).
Coyotes, Canis latrans, are often confused with domestic dogs and small wolves (Bekoff 1982). The confusion is not uncommon due to the wolf-dog, wolf-coyote, and coyote-dog hybrids (Mengel 1971; Kennelly and Roberts 1969).
Food Habits: Coyotes are labeled as omnivores but are basically carnivores (Davis and Schmildly 1994). Coyotes are opportunistic and tend to kill prey that is easy to secure such as the young, inexperienced, old, sick, or weakened animals (Bekoff 1978). Canis latrans are very active predators and rely heavily on vision, auditory, and olfactory stimuli for hunting (Wells and Bekoff 1982; Bekoff 1977; Bekoff 1978). Food consumed by a coyote include a wide variety of animals: bison, deer, elk, sheep, rabbits, rodents, birds, lizards, most snakes, crustaceans, insects, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, apples, pears, and prickly pear cactus apples (Bekoff 1982; Reichel 1991). Grass is a rare food item for a coyote (Sperry 1934). In some areas, coyotes will feed on human garbage from dump sites and often feed on domestic animals as well (Davis and Schmildly 1994). Seasonal selection of food is due to the availability of the prey. In the winter, the food can consist of: vegetable matter 1%, bird 3%, deer 3%, sheep and goats 8%, rodents 15%, rabbits 34%, and carrion 36% (Sperry 1934). Canis latrans will spend more time resting than hunting when carrion is available, although it would not be their first choice of meat; they would much rather have fresh meat (Wells and Bekoff 1982). During the winter, 67% of their time is spent resting, 19% during the fall, and 21% during the spring/summer (Bekoff and Wells 1982). In the summer, the amount of prey available increases, therefore the average prey size a coyote kills decreases. The availability of their prey increases due to the warm weather which causes some animals to come out of hibernation (Bowen 1980). Coyotes attack livestock on pastures during the spring and early summer and attacks may increase in the fall due to dispersal of young coyotes from their homes (Voigt and Berg 1999; Balser 1974).
Coyotes will cache a surplus of food and mark caching sites with urine to proclaim ownership of their food (Harrington 1982). Other animals do not avoid the urine marked food. The food marking is a sign of dominance with the food serving as an effective olfactory sign to draw animals (Harrington 1982). Urination is a very common activity of a Canis latrans which is frequently done while traveling, hunting, digging, to show aggression, at carrion, while eating, and playing, this sequence is noted in order of frequency (Bekoff and Wells 1981). Males use rear leg urination while females use squat urination with both feet on the ground (Harrington 1982; Barrette and Messier 1980; Bekoff and Wells 1981).
Hunting success can vary with the coyote’s age, prey size, grass height, and environmental variables (Voigt and Berg 1999). Hunting is done in open areas allowing them to pursue and test their prey. Often coyotes will sit and wait for smaller prey to come along. Canis latrans sequence of searching for food consists of long-distance searching, close searching, orientation, stalking, pouncing, rushing towards the animal, and finally killing it. The coyote may not use all of these techniques for searching for food at the same time, but mainly the techniques are stalking and killing (Wells and Bekoff 1982). A coyote is successful in killing an animal 10-50% of the time (Wells and Bekoff 1982). In killing a rodent, the coyote will bite the rodent on the head and shake the prey vigorously from side to side (Wells and Bekoff 1982). Coyotes kill fawns by biting them on the head or on the neck causing suffocation, although some fawns were killed with bites on the back (Salwasser 1974). Typically, the coyote likes the younger animals because their stomachs contain a good source of food such as the milk that is palatable for them to eat. If they kill an older deer, coyotes will not eat the stomach of the deer due to the lack of nutrients (White 1973; Allen 1973). After eating, the coyote will clean himself off by rubbing his muzzle, chin, and throat on the ground (White 1973).
There is an unusual alliance between badgers and coyotes. A badger and a coyote will go to a prairie dog town together. The badger will dig out the prairie dogs with his large front claws while the coyote waits for the bait to emerge from the hole in the ground. The coyotes will catch and kill the prairie dogs and then leave some food for the badger (Fischer 1975).
Coyotes are prey for grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, and wolves. In the last few years, these predators of the coyote have become less of a threat due to their declining populations (Whitaker 1996).
Reproduction: In Canis latrans, scent marking with urine has been implicated in several aspects of reproductive behavior. The male will become increasingly attracted to the female’s urine and feces during reproduction (Harrington 1982; Bekoff and Diamond 1976).
Both males and females are able to breed during their first year of life, usually at about 9-10 months old (Knowlton 1972). In Texas, the percentage of females having litters varied from 48% to 81% during their first year of life. Canis latrans reach maturity at the age of 20 to 22 months (Knowlton 1972).
Female coyotes are monestrous. This means that females only come into estrus one time per year and males have an annual cycle of spermatogenesis (Bekoff 1995; Bekoff 1978). Courtship between a male and female occurs for 2 to 3 months before mating takes place. During copulation, the male and female become tied to one another. They establish a strong social bond, select a territory, prepare a den, hunt and sleep together during the pregnancy, and both provide care for the young (Andelt et al. 1979). The female and male will usually mate for several years, or in some instances, just for the breeding season which is January to February (Fisher 1975). The estrus cycle lasts about 2-5 days and ovulation occurs about 2-3 days before the end of female receptivity (Gipson et al. 1975). The gestation period is 60-63 days (Davis and Schmildly 1994; Voigt and Berg 1999). During March and April females begin to nurse their pups, while in May and June pup training begins. From July to September the pups are in their adolescence and begin to pre-breed from mid-September through January (Andelt et al. 1979; Mengel 1971; Laundre and Keller 1984). The litter size can range from 2 to 12 pups but an average is 6 pups (Davis and Schmildly 1994; Bekoff 1995). The population density and amount of food available will affect the litter size; in north Texas the litter size is usually higher than any other part of Texas (Knowlton 1972). The sex ratio of males to females is 1:1 (Bekoff 1982). The pups are born completely helpless and blind (Fisher 1975) at a weight of 240-275 grams and length of 160 millimeters (Bekoff 1982). Their eyes will open on the fourteenth day and they begin to walk at three weeks of age (Fisher 1975). The pups will emerge from the den at 3-4 weeks of age and are weaned at 6-7 weeks (Davis and Schmildly 1994; Bekoff 1982). The pups begin to hunt small rodents independently at four months of age (Bekoff 1982), while dispersal of juveniles begins in the fall and continues through the winter (Wells and Bekoff 1982). If a juvenile stays for 10-11 months or longer, they are known as helpers (Wells and Bekoff 1982). A juvenile remains in their territory to learn and mature, which also improves their parent’s genetic fitness. The juvenile will provide help with survival of the new litters by providing food (Messier and Patterson 2001) and protecting their territory and the pups (Wells and Bekoff 1982).
Survival rate for a coyote is clearly related to the health of their mother, which is linked to the quantity and quality of food available for her before and after her pregnancy (Wells and Bekoff 1982). Pups survival depends on the ability of the parents to work together to retrieve food for them, but this may be difficult due to the fact that they are unable to travel far away from the den (Messier and Barrette 1982). It is not unusual to have a female coyote pregnant in a pack allowing her to receive additional help in raising her pups from other females in the pack (Wells and Bekoff 1982). About 75% of the coyote population is between 1 to 4 years of age (Bekoff 1982). The maximum age of a coyote is 13.5 years of age (Bekoff and Wells 1982), but most coyotes living in the wild live for 6-8 years (Davis and Schmildly 1994). To maintain population stability for the Canis latrans, a survival rate of 33-38% is necessary (Bekoff 1982).
Behavior: Coyotes are active during the early evening and early morning (Bekoff 1977). For coyotes that are parents, nighttime activity increases around the den sites while during the day they are inactive (Andelt et al. 1979; Gipson and Sealander 1972). Unfortunately for the parents, the pups are more active during the day than at night (Gipson and Sealander 1972).
Coyotes live in social groupings of single individuals, mated pairs and packs of three or more (Bekoff and Wells 1982; Wells and Bekoff 1982). Canis latrans social structure is affected by the amount of food available (Bowen 1980; Reichel 1991) and distinguishes whether the coyote has a home-range or a territorial range. A home-range means they have a flexible boundary allowing them to overlap into another group’s space, which occurs in individuals and mating pairs (Gipson and Sealander 1972). A range of paired coyotes is usually 3 to 5 miles in diameter (Fisher 1975).
Overlapping of a range is not uncommon and will occur when there is a lack of food availability. The size of the home range depends on the season, geographic location, and the age of the coyote. Home ranges of male coyotes generally tend to be larger than those of females, but in Texas this is an exception (Gipson and Sealander 1972). Coyotes will urinate to proclaim their territory or as spacing behavior (Harrington 1982) which will deter a potential intruder from trespassing (Messier and Barrette 1982). Coyotes range over such large areas that the rates of encountering an intruder are low. If an encounter occurs, a Canis latrans will show a very aggressive manner toward the intruder (Messier and Barrette 1982).
A pack of coyotes becomes territorial and will defend their territory from other animals when food is scarce (Bekoff and Wells 1982). Pack formations consist of a mated pair, and their non-dispersing, non-breeding offspring, although non-related individuals may become incorporated into an already existing pack (Messier and Barrette 1982). In the winter months, coyotes may hunt in packs to seek large ungulates. The larger the pack size the greater success of predation (Bowen 1980; Gipson and Sealander 1972). When foraging in a pack, they are able to search a larger area for food and more likely to come in contact with an animal for prey. Pack size is a good predictor of diet, if 2 or more coyotes are together they will attack a large animal. If one coyote is hunting alone, it will likely hunt a smaller animal (Bowen 1980). Hunting in a pack will allow them to run in a relay to tire prey, or a coyote may wait to ambush the prey while the others chase the prey towards him (Whitaker 1996).
Canis latrans are known for their vocalization, the most vocal of all North American wild mammals (Bekoff 1978). Canis latrans exhibit their vocalization during dusk, dawn, or during the night (Whitaker 1996). There are eleven vocalizations given off by coyotes including woof, growl, huff, bark, bark-howl, yelp, and whine (Bekoff 1978). A usual call will be made up of barks and yelps indicating their location and allowing them to unite together (Whitaker 1996). The most common vocalization associated with a coyote is the lone howl, which announces the location of individuals separated from their social group (Bekoff 1978). The intent of a Canis latrans is shown by their body language and visual display (Bekoff 1978; Bekoff 1977).
Parasites such as ticks or tapeworms can develop depending on the area the coyote lives which also increase the chance of death of a coyote. Canis latrans may also carry rabies, tularemia, and bubonic plague, and suffer from cardiovascular diseases, and cancer (Bekoff 1982; Voigt and Berg 1999; Bekoff 1978).
Habitat: Den sites are favored along riverbanks, well-drained slopes, sides of canyons, and gulches (Whitaker 1996). Coyote habitats are typically located in the open plains in the western part of the United States and in brushy areas, in the eastern United States (Whitaker 1996). Dens from other animals are commonly used by coyotes, for example a badger. The dens usually have more than one entrance and have several interconnecting tunnels. A coyote may occupy the same den year to year, but they will move if they feel that they or their pups are in danger (Bekoff and Wells 1982; Bekoff 1982). Almost any habitat that supports prey population also supports coyotes (Voigt and Berg 1999). In Canada, the coyote abundance increased 600% due to the increased number of hares and decreased when the hares started to diminish (Messier and Patterson 2001; Reichel 1991). Overall, coyote densities show that there is no barrier to their expansion into areas where there is adequate food available for them to hunt (Bekoff 1978).
Economic Importance for Humans:
During the 1970s and 1980s, coyote pelts became quite valuable. Canis latrans molt once a year during the late spring. This long dense fur produces pelts that are sought for fur coats, fur trim and other apparel (Voigt and Berg 1999). Humans began to want to control the Canis latrans population because of the killing of valuable livestock. Therefore, a bounty was put on the coyote (Bekoff 1977). When the fur industry collapsed, the demand for coyote pelts diminished (Whitaker 1996). In Texas, the coyote is the second most important furbearing animal in the state besides the raccoon (Davis and Schmildly 1994).
Humans are a major enemy of the coyote, due to humans wanting to protect their livestock (Whitaker 1996). Coyotes were responsible for 82% of all sheep lost due to their predation (Bekoff 1982). A lot of money is spent on predator control directed at the coyotes. The United States government in 1971 spent about $8 million to help lower the coyote population (Bekoff 1982). Control and management programs involve trapping, shooting, and poisoning (Bekoff 1995). There are basically two methods of extermination: lethal and non-lethal. The lethal methods include traps, guns, or poison. Non-lethal methods include electric fences, aversive agents, and chemosterilants to help reduce coyote population (Bekoff 1978). Overall, coyote control has been ineffective due to amount of information that is still needed to understand their behavioral ecology and population dynamics (Bekoff 1982; Bekoff 1977). Although coyotes have endured many years of trapping and poisoning, they continue to maintain their numbers and increase their population in the east (Whitaker 1996). Human-caused mortality was responsible for at least 90% of all deaths of coyotes older than 5 months, but in south Texas human-caused mortality only accounted for 38% to 57% of all deaths (Voigt and Berg 1999). Pups and juveniles are affected more by conservation methods than adult coyotes (Voigt and Berg 1999).
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