Coyote (Canis latrans)
|Also known as:||American jackal, brush wolf, prairie wolf|
|Size||Head-body length: 70 – 97 cm (2)|
Shoulder height: 45 – 53 cm (2)
|Weight||8 – 22 kg (2)|
- The arrival of European settlers in America and their subsequent land conversion allowed the coyote to dramatically expand its range.
- Coyotes can run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.
- Coyotes have been known to mutually assist American badgers in hunting burrowing rodents, the coyotes using their sense of smell for detection and the badger excavating the prey from burrows.
- Coyotes are not fussy eaters and will go for fruit, fish, refuse and mammals large and small - even domestic dogs and cats!
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Renowned for its piercing nocturnal howl, the coyote is one of North America’s most adaptable and resourceful predators (2) (3). This species is often confused with the red and grey wolf and the domestic dog, and identification can be further confounded by the fact that the coyote can breed and produce fertile hybrids with these species (4). Nevertheless, the ‘pure’ coyote can be distinguished by its generally smaller size, narrower muzzle, proportionately longer ears, and more slender build (2) (5). Due to bands of colour on the hairs, the coat is typically grizzled greyish-buff, becoming yellowish on the outer ears, legs and feet, while the underparts are grey or white (3) (4). Populations from the northern parts of the range generally have coarser, longer fur which may be greyish black on the upper body, while those found in desert regions have shorter, more yellowish coats. Some individuals may also have a rufous tinge, and in rare cases, entirely black animals can occur (4).
Prior to European settlement in North America the coyote was found in northern and central Mexico, the south-west of the USA, and also plains regions of both the USA and Canada. As the settlers modified the landscape, the coyote was able to expand its range north and west during the 19th century. Ongoing expansion of human development and declining wolf populations throughout the 20th century allowed further colonisation of the remainder of the USA and Mexico, as well as parts of Central America. Today the coyote occurs throughout almost all of Canada, excepting the far north-east, south throughout the entire USA and Mexico, as far as Panama (1).
The highly adaptable coyote utilises almost all available habitats within its range, including prairie, forest, desert, mountain and tropical ecosystems. This species also exploits human resources, allowing it to occupy urban areas (1).
Though potentially active at any time, the coyote typically hunts during the early morning, at sunset, and throughout the night (4) (5). While this species was once believed to be solitary, it is now understood that it often forms breeding pairs and packs. Packs are usually small family groups, comprising a dominant pair and offspring from previous years (3). They are most commonly formed in northern regions in the winter, when food usually takes the form of large ungulate carcasses, which can be shared amongst the pack and defended from other coyotes (2).When hunting live prey, pack members usually work alone, stalking animals from up to 50 metres away, before making a rapid dash, or in the case of smaller prey, a rapid pounce (2) (3). On occasion, however, groups may chase larger animals for up to 400 metres (2). When pursuing prey the coyote can reach sprinting speeds of up to 65 kilometres per hour (3), making it one of the fastest terrestrial mammals in North America (5). An opportunistic feeder, the coyote’s diet includes fruits, insects, fish, small mammals, large ungulates, livestock and refuse (1) (3). Interestingly, coyotes are also known to form hunting partnerships with American badgers, in which the two animals travel together, utilising the coyote’s acute sense of smell to detect rodents. The badger then excavates the burrow in which the prey resides, while the coyote catches any fleeing animals, and the two predators share the proceeds (2) (5).
Coyotes breed between January and March, depending on latitude. Breeding pairs form strong pair bonds, and may remain together for many years, though not necessarily for life (4). After a gestation period of around 63 days, around six pups are born (3), which are initially nursed in a den excavated in a steep bank, under a rocky ledge or in a hollow log (4). The pups emerge after three weeks, and begin to take regurgitated solid food, although weaning does not occur until five to seven weeks old. If the breeding pair is part of a pack, ‘helper’ individuals, which are usually offspring from the previous year, assist with raising the young. After nine months the young reach adult size and may remain in the pack or disperse over long distances (4). As only the dominant pair in the pack are permitted to breed, pack members face the choice of remaining in the pack and attempting to gain dominance, or dispersing to find a mate. The latter option is risky, as transient, solitary individuals lack a territory, and must cover large ranges in search of food and a mate (2).
Unlike many predators, the coyote has benefitted from the effects of human-induced changes (2), with both land conversion and the removal of wolves by European settlers, enabling it to greatly expand it range. Despite fierce persecution and trapping for fur, this species is abundant and is increasing (1). Nevertheless, populations in and around urban areas are potentially threatened by hybridisation with domestic dogs, thereby breeding out the genetically ‘pure’ coyote individuals. Similarly, hybridisation between grey wolves in the north-east and red wolves in the south-east is also occurring, and while less of an issue for the coyote, is proving problematic for the threatened red wolf’s recovery (1).
With an abundant population and expanding range, there is no real requirement at present for conservation programs targeting the coyote. Nevertheless, this species occurs in nearly all protected areas across its range, and restrictions on fur hunting are in place in some states (1).
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- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Hybridisation: cross-breeding between two different species or subspecies.
- Hybrids: the offspring produced by parents of two different species or subspecies.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
- Ungulate: a hoofed, grazing mammal.
IUCN Red List (August, 2009)
- Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
- Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (2003) Wild mammals of North America: biology, management, and conservation. 2nd Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
- Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker's Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.