Wolves and coyotes share many common traits. They are both members of the dog family, specifically in the genus canis. This genus also includes jackals and domestic dogs. Wolves and coyotes are both dog-like in appearance, have similar societal organizations and are perceived to be threats to livestock. While these similarities exist, there are also major differences between the two.
Wolves and coyotes seem very similar in appearance at first glance, but several differences are readily apparent. Coyotes have longer ears and a more pointed nose than wolves. Their legs are noticeably thinner and shorter than those of wolves. Coyotes' tails tend to be bushier, and they typically hold them down toward the ground. Coloring can vary greatly, but is generally a tan-brown. Wolves have a broader snout, larger paws and longer, thicker legs. Their coloring can range from gray to white to black.
One major difference between wolves and coyotes involves size. Wolves are much larger and heavier than coyotes. Male wolves can reach lengths of 7 feet – including 20 inches of tail. Wolves may also weigh upwards of 175 pounds, although weights between 100 to 125 pounds are more typical. By contrast, coyotes rarely reach 5 feet in length and usually weigh between 25 and 75 pounds. Eastern coyotes are generally slightly larger than their western counterparts.
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Wolves are highly social creatures that live and hunt in packs. These packs are organized in a strictly hierarchical structure. Packs vary in size, but six to 10 members are typical. Only the alpha male and his mate breed, although all members help care for the pups. Coyotes are also social, and packs are more prevalent than just mated pairs. Complex packs are more likely to occur, however, in the north and western parts of their range. In contrast to wolves, and likely due to the fact that coyotes prey on smaller animals, they have developed a more solitary means of hunting.
Coyotes have shown an amazing ability to adapt to a wide variety of environments, including urban areas. While originally limited to the western U.S., their range now covers all of North America including Alaska and most of Canada. It also stretches through Mexico and into Central America as far south as Panama. Wolves once ranged throughout most of North America, but are now found only in Canada, the northern states of the U.S. and Yellowstone Park.
Wolves and coyotes, as large predators, often compete for the same habitats and food sources. The coyotes' range has increased due in part to the decrease in the population of wolves. However, where wolf populations still exist, the presence of coyotes is reduced. When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995, the park saw a corresponding decrease in the population of coyotes.
Both wolves and coyotes are known for their howling. Wolves appear to howl to communicate with other wolves. These communications may involve location or confrontation over territory. Coyotes also communicate vocally. They howl either to coordinate hunting or to locate pack members. A group howl may warn other packs of territorial boundaries.