How to tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote

From a distance, it can be difficult to distinguish a wolf from a coyote. But if you’ve seen one of these similar-looking creatures, chances are you’ve spotted a coyote. Widespread and abundant, coyotes thrive in habitats where people have transformed the natural landscape.

Larger and bulkier, wolves generally live farther from human development. In the past, people hunted wolves – some species on the verge of extinction – to prevent the slaughter of livestock. Their long and contentious history with humanity has understandably made wolves wary of interaction.

Learn about the physical and behavioral qualities of each of these unique species as well as their prospects for survival.

Main differences

  • Cut: On average, wolves are taller, longer, heavier and more muscular than coyotes.
  • Interval: Coyotes range from Alberta, Canada, through all US states except Hawaii, to Mexico, and have recently entered Panama; wolves are native to North America and Eurasia.
  • face shape: Coyotes tend to have a more fox-like nose with pointed ears in contrast to wolves’ more rounded ears and snouts.
  • Behaviour: Wolves are expressive and social creatures while coyotes prefer a more solitary life.

Classification of the wolf and the coyote

Wolves are carnivores of the Candidae family and genus Canis, with two recognized species: red wolves (Red canis) and gray wolves (Canis lupus). Beyond that, the number of subspecies is much debated.

Also called the scrub wolf or prairie wolf, the coyote (Canis latranslisten)) is another dog in the same family and genus as wolves but, unlike its colloquial name, is a separate species.

Did you know?

Coyotes are so closely related to wolves that they can interbreed to produce coywolves: fertile hybrids with characteristics of both large canines.

Characteristics of Coyotes vs. Wolves


Wolves in the desert.

Jim Cumming/Getty Images


Due to their posture and structure, adult coyotes are easily confused with larger domestic dogs. Conversely, small adult wolves may, at first glance, look like large coyotes.

Size and build

Standing 18 inches at the shoulder and about four feet in length, coyotes weigh 15 to 45 pounds. Their simplified build allows them to run slightly faster and maintain that speed longer than wolves.

In contrast, wolves are powerfully built with longer tails, shorter torsos, wider strides, and more elegant gaits. Wolves weigh between 50 and 100 pounds, their shoulder height ranges from 27 to 33 inches, and they are five to six feet long. Given this physical advantage, wolves tend to attack and kill coyotes in habitats where the two species coexist, decreasing the coyote population over time.

The size differential is repeated in the tracks of each animal. Wolf tracks can exceed five inches long and four inches wide, while coyote tracks are usually less than half that.

face shape

Wolves typically have a blocky snout compared to the narrower, longer noses of coyotes. In proportion to head size, coyotes’ ears are more prominent, with some coyotes’ ears exceeding wolves by more than twice their size. The coyote’s ears are not only larger, but they are also pointed, compared to the rounded tips of wolves.

Color

Coyotes only have tan or gray fur, while wolves can come in black, gray, mottled white, and brown. As they age, wolves’ fur may lighten to silvery blue or white.

Howl


Two howling wolves.
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Wolves and coyotes howl as a form of communication over great distances. Coyotes have higher pitched and shorter howls and tend to bark more, especially at the beginning of the call. They also emit yelps and yelps.

Wolf howls have a deeper tone and smoother pitch changes. They bark and growl at the same lower frequency. However, cubs bark and howl at higher pitches with more pitch changes.

Family organization and behavior

With the exception of breeding pups, coyotes are generally solitary or paired creatures. They are not as aggressive as wolves, but they are strong hunters and can be provoked if they starve or defend their young. Yet coyotes are feared more than they pose a real threat to humans, mainly because so many people mistake them for wolves.

Wolves, however, are more social creatures that live in packs all year round. Because they are territorial and fight to the death, wolves are aggressive towards other wolves. Yet wolf attacks on humans are rare.

Conservation state


Coyotes can thrive in urban environments, including cities like San Francisco.

Markus Valek/EyeEm/Getty Images


Neither wolves nor coyotes are threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future, at least in large parts of North America. Even Europe, a continent where many predators, including wolves, were virtually extinct, is seeing a resurgence in the wolf population.

After 45 years of effort, gray wolves have been listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2020, the gray wolf was removed from the US endangered species list. Simultaneously with this conservation success, the fate of the subspecies lo bonow considered one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

Because coyotes are so well adapted to life with humans, they are one of the few species to succeed in the Anthropocene era. As deforestation spreads, they too have expanded their range, participating in the Great American Biotic Interchange, a pathway by which species travel across the Americas.

Frequently Asked Questions


  • How to tell a wolf from a coyote?

    Coyotes are generally smaller, sleeker dogs with gray or tan fur and sharper facial features. Wolves are their larger, heavier, round-faced counterparts that come in a range of colors.


  • Is a coyote a dog or a wolf?

    Both coyotes and wolves are part of the Canidae family.


  • Which is more aggressive, a wolf or a coyote?

    Coyotes are less aggressive than wolves, but because they live closer to people, they are often mistakenly considered aggressive.


  • Are the coyote and the wolf the same?

    Coyotes and wolves are two different species that belong to the same family (Canidae) and the same genus (Canis).


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