Coyote Vision: Comparing Their Sense of Sight to Humans and Other Animals

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Published on August 1, 2021
Last Updated on February 8, 2024

This article was fact-checked in January 2024 by coyote expert Jonathan Way who runs the website Eastern Coyote Research

Have you heard of any wild animal that recognizes and knows how to navigate roads by timing traffic light patterns? Believe it or not: Coyotes have been known to do this by waiting and reading a stoplight or traffic congestion before crossing the street!

Coyotes live in almost every habitat across Northern America, including urban ones. As this video shows, it may come as no surprise that they have become adapted to life in the city.

These canines have learned to adjust to the metropolitan lifestyle by being more active in the dark (nocturnal). With the help of their excellent night vision, they have more success in finding prey when most people are asleep in the metro.

Are you curious to know more as to why coyotes can only see the green (i.e., ‘go’) and yellow (i.e., ‘caution’) traffic lights? Stick around as we take a closer look at their visual ability. Also, continue reading on to find out how well your eyes can see compared to coyotes.  

A Glimpse of Coyotes’ Eyes and Vision

A coyote has two large, slightly slanted eyes in front of its thin, furry face. 

Its piercing eyes give off a cunning expression to anyone it comes face to face with, especially its prey. 

Coyotes are known for being visual predators in open fields. But they turn to their senses of hearing and smelling when they need to hunt in thick forests.

Unlike humans, who primarily rely on our eyesight, these animals mainly depend on their noses, as experts say their sense of smell is more than 23X better than their vision!

How Well Do Coyotes See Compared to Humans?

Most researchers would identify coyotes as near-sighted compared to normal human vision. 

Humans generally have a 20/20 visual acuity. On the other hand, coyotes have a 20/75 vision like dogs. This means that dogs must be 20 feet away to see something that humans can see from 75 feet.

Coyotes are canids that belong to the Canidae family, which includes wolves, foxes, jackals, and even domestic dogs. Studies on the coyote’s sense of sight are limited, but they most likely have a visual acuity similar to other canids. 

Coyotes’ Peripheral Vision Beats Ours

Both coyotes and humans have binocular vision because our eyes are in front of our skulls. Yet a coyote can see 260° of its surroundings, while a human only has a 180° field of view. 

Coyote with brown-yellowish eyes, its head tuened slightly
Photo credit: Jonathan Way

Coyotes owe their excellent peripheral vision to their slightly slanted eye sockets and long snouts that don’t obstruct their view. Their facial orientation lets their eyes immediately anticipate a change in their environment to a much wider extent than humans. 

As predators, coyotes are better at picking up movement than humans, so even though they are near-sighted or have a lesser visual acuity than us, they can detect prey or an unfamiliar object much sooner than we can.

Coyote VS. Human Eyes

One of the best ways to understand the coyote’s sense of sight is to compare it to humans. As such, Floofmania will now go in-depth and compare the human eye’s anatomical structure to the coyote’s.  

Retina

The retina is a layer of nervous membrane in the back of each eye that sends visual messages to the brain. 

We all need light to see. Inside the retinas are photoreceptor cells called rods and cones that are responsible for detecting and converting this light source so the brain can understand the visual image presented before us. 

Cones or cone cells are primarily responsible for daytime and color vision, while rods or rod cells help us see in the dark.

Humans Have More Cone Cells Than Coyotes

Cone cells allow us to see colors and distinguish details when they process bright light sources like the sun. Because of them, we can detect wavelengths directly in tune with the colors we recognize from the light’s electromagnetic spectrum.  

ColorWavelength (in nanometers)
Red620 to 750 nm
Orange590 to 620 nm
Yellow570 to 590 nm
Green495 to 570 nm
Blue450 to 495 nm
Violet380 to 450 nm

Human eyes are trichromatic. We have three types of cones that typically help us perceive wavelengths from 380 nm (violet) to 700 nm (red) or the whole visible light spectrum (R.O.Y.G.B.I.V.). Hence, humans can vividly see the colors and details of an object in depth during the day or when there’s a sufficient light source available. 

Diagram illustrating the relationship between retinal response and the wavelengths of light for different cone cell types
From Arizona State University: Rods and Cones of the Human Eye

On the other hand, canines, such as coyotes, only have two types of cones (dichromatic) and can only detect up to 540 nm in their visible light spectrum. This means that coyotes can only see the colors yellow and blue. But there is also a theory that green stands out as white to them. 

All the other colors, especially red, appear as shades of gray to canines. A few researchers also say that they cannot see the color red at all and will only mute its hues to a dark or dull shade of yellow. The bright red color just doesn’t give a pop to the coyote’s eyes as much as it does to our vision. 

A comparison between the canine (dog)  and human vision vision in regards to wavelengths and color
From Mark Plonsky, Ph.D.: Canine Vision

Due to fewer cone cell types in a coyote’s eyes, their daytime vision isn’t as great compared to humans. While we can generally see details clearly during the day, the coyote’s eyesight is blurry because they’re near-sighted or have a 20/75 visual acuity. They need to rely on their wide field of view to detect movement or change in their surroundings.

Coyotes Have a Superabundance of Rod Cells Unlike Humans

Rods or rod cells are responsible for night or dim light vision. At nighttime or in low-light conditions, we depend on the rods in our eyes to see in the dark, albeit in black and white. 

Although rods are abundant in humans’ eyes, they are superabundant in coyotes. Their rods almost entirely make up their retinas, which makes up for their color vision disadvantage. 

Rods contain the biological photosensitive pigment rhodopsin, which is exceptionally light-sensitive. It only needs a little light source to activate the eyes’ night vision. But the coyotes’ superabundance of rods takes the efficiency of this pigment to the extreme by enabling the rhodopsin to break down even faster. 

As a result, coyotes only need a fifth of the light source we need to be able to see in the dark. The coyote’s large, slanted eyes also give way to a broader retinal surface that can capture more light. So, these predators can assess their surroundings and locate their prey even on a moonless night.

While our night vision appears hazy and limited in how far we can see, the coyote’s night vision seems sharp and clear as day to them, as coyotes can see 5 to 6 times better at night than humans.

Tapetum Lucidum

The tapetum lucidum is a reflective membrane of thick mirror-like cells below the retina. It bounces the light that enters the eye back again to the retina. Thus, it gives the rods or the retinal photoreceptor cells a second chance to absorb more of the light source and digest visual information. 

Many animals, especially nocturnal ones like coyotes, have this special covering. It helps them to see objects more clearly at night. Due to humans being diurnal or being more active when the sun is out, we don’t have tapetum lucidum in our eyes.

So, this tapetum lucidum only further improves the coyotes’ already excellent night vision!

Coyotes Have a White Eyeshine

While colors or parts of the eyes are hard to identify without going near the person or animal, the tapetum lucidum is easy to visualize. You can simply shine a flashlight on an animal’s eyes and immediately see the glow on their eyes, which is indicative of the membrane doing its work. 

The tapetum lucidum acts as a retroreflector by casting back the light to the source. So when you’re shining a light on a coyote’s eyes, you’ll see its eyes having a fiery, bright white glow. 

Some also say they see a green or red eyeshine coming from a coyote’s eyes. Their eyes will reflect a tinge of these colors if you use similar red or green-colored bulbs or diodes in your flashlights.

On the other hand, humans have no eyeshine because we don’t have tapetum lucidum in our eyes. Contrary to popular belief, the red-eye effect we often see in our photos is because of the light that the retina bounces back to the source and not the tapetum lucidum found in other animals. 

Iris

The irises are the colored portions of the eyes. They are the flat, ring-shaped muscles in the eyes that control the light that enters the eyes. 

Coyotes Usually Have Yellow Irises

Coyote pups are born blind and only open their blue eyes after 8 to 10 days. Their irises slowly turn yellow to amber as they mature and grow older. 

Photo credit: Joshua Wilking via Unsplash.com

Fully grown adult coyotes can have very light lemon-colored irises or dark golden-brown eyes. But there have been sightings of green, orange, and reddish to blackish brown eye colors. 

Coyote expert Jonathan Way also says that he commonly sees yellow and brown irises in eastern coyotes/coywolves:  

Coyote with alert yellow eyes peeking out from bushes
Coyote with brown eyes and fluffy fur looking towards the viewer
Coyote with its head raised sligtly while looking towards the viewer.
Photo credits: Jonathan Way
Editing by Floofmania.com

And while scientists say that a blue-eye-colored coyote has a rare genetic mutation, more people seem to have encountered them through the years. 

Meanwhile, humans usually have brown irises, with about 80% of the world population having a brown eye color. But like coyotes, their irises can also come in a variety of other shades like blue and amber. 

Pupil

Pupils are the round black circles inside the irises. The irises control the light that enters the eye by making the pupils bigger (dilating) or smaller (constricting). These structures are the openings where the light can pass through the eyes. 

Closeup of a coyote's yellow eye.
Photo credit: Jonathan Way

Both Humans and Coyotes Cannot Directly Look At The Sun

Having proportionally larger eyes than humans allows more light to enter the coyotes’ pupils at night during a hunt. Consequently, it would be hard for coyotes to fully squint their eyes and constrict their pupils in bright daylight. 

All animals, including humans, shouldn’t stare straight at the blazing sun. Looking directly at the sun exposes the eyes to excessive ultraviolet radiation and potentially to irreversible retinal damage. 

So, like the naturally diurnal or crepuscular coyotes, it is better to care for your eyes and only closely appreciate the sun during sunrise and sunset. 

Here’s a summary of the similarities and differences between a coyotes’ and humans’ eyes and vision:

Trait/Eye PartCoyotesHumans
Eye PositionSlightly slanted placed in front of the face/skullIn front of the face/skull
Visual Acuity20/75 (Nearsighted; would need to move closer to 20 ft to an object a human can already see at 75 ft)20/20
Peripheral Vision260° field of view (excellent at detecting movement)180° field of view
Cone Cell TypesTwo (Dichromatic)Three (Trichromatic)
Colors They Can See (Due to the No. of Types of Cones in Their Eyes)Blue and Yellow; Possibly Green (up to 540 nm only)Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet (Full Visible Spectrum of 380 to 700 nm)
Daytime VisionBlurred and need to depend on their wide field of viewGreat and can distinguish details clearly
Night VisionExcellent (have a superabundance of rods)Hazy and Limited
Tapetum LucidumLocated behind its retinasNone
EyeshineFiery White GlowNo eyeshine (no tapetum lucidum)
IrisesUsually yellowUsually brown but can be varied
Can They Directly Look At The SunNoNo

We at Floofmania hope this article informs you of the visual acuity of coyotes and other canids when compared to humans. 

Coyotes have biologically adapted to have a superabundance of rod cells to see better in the dark. In contrast, they have fewer cone cells and thus don’t have the visual capability of humans during the day. 

Coyotes, like all animals, including people, are attuned to where they live, and their eyes are a reflection – no pun intended – of that fact!

Authors

    by
  • Gra
    (Author)

    Hello! My name is Graciola Galo, but my friends call me “Gra” – so can you! Aside from being a dog lover, my bachelor’s degree in biology has helped me develop a deep appreciation for animals. I look forward to learning more about all kinds of wildlife in every future article I write for Floofmania and I aspire to impart that same awe and wonder to you, too!

  • Jonathan Way
    (Expert)

    Jon is Floofmania's coyote and coywolf expert. He lends a hand in fact-checking, proofreading and editing our content about coyotes. Jonathan (Jon) Way has a B.S. (UMass Amherst), M.S. (UConn Storrs), and doctorate (Boston College) related to the study of eastern coyotes, also known as coywolves. He is also the author of several books and peer-reviewed studies of which you can read more on his website.

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