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TN: What is the Difference Between Red Wolves and Coyotes?

What is the Difference Between Red Wolves and Coyotes?

by Kyle Waggener, Chattanooga Nature Center

Kyle Waggener is the Director of Education/Lead Naturalist for the Chattanooga Nature Center

Red Wolves and Coyotes are very closely related and in fact share a recent common ancestor. The two species do hybridize and produce fertile offspring. It is usually impossible to distinguish between a Coyote – Red Wolf hybrid and a Red Wolf just by looking at it. Wildlife Biologists that work with the only known wild population of Red Wolves at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina have to do DNA tests to be sure.

Red Wolves are a critically endangered species with only about 100 individuals existing in the wild in the world, all of them in the Alligator River NWR area of North Carolina. Coyotes, although not found East of the Mississippi River prior to 1900, are now very common in the wild.

Red Wolves, as a species, are larger in both height and weight. Coyotes usually weigh between 25 and 35 pounds while Red Wolves usually weigh between 50 and 80 pounds. Red Wolves are more massive in the head, chest, legs and feet. There can be size overlap between the species. Some Red Wolves are in fact smaller that some Coyotes. Coyotes tend to have a longer, narrower, muzzle than Red Wolves do.

Red wolves are mostly brown and buff colored with some black along their backs; there is sometimes a reddish color behind their ears, on their muzzle, and toward the backs of their legs. However, many Red Wolves can have the same colors as coyotes which tend to be light gray with some black on the tips of their outer hairs.

Red Wolves howls are similar to Coyotes but tend to be of longer duration and lower in pitch. Coyotes tend to have more yapping intermixed with the howls. Again, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference in some individuals.

It used to be believed that Coyotes didn’t hunt in packs like wolves but pack hunting coyotes have now been observed in the wild.

The Eastern Coyote is different from the Western Coyote in size, genetics and behavior. This is due to interbreeding with wolves. Eastern Coyotes have wolf genes and therefore are taking on wolf characteristics. This happened when the wolf population in the Eastern United States was hunted almost to extinction and had dwindled to a small enough size that they would breed with Coyotes instead of chasing them off or killing them.

If you are anywhere in Eastern North America, outside of coastal North Carolina, and observe a large wolf-like animal, it is almost certainly an Eastern Coyote or possibly a Gray Wolf that someone had as a pet and dumped in the wild.

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