Coywolves: The Coyote-Wolf Hybrids That Thrive in Northeastern North America

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Published on May 19, 2024
Last Updated on May 19, 2024

If you’re anywhere from Southeastern Canada to the Northeastern United States, you’d probably refer to the golden red, slender-faced wild canine trotting in the woods or sometimes in your neighborhood as a coyote. Yet, these east coast ‘coyotes’ are more massive than their western counterparts. Scientific studies show that they are part wolf and, to some extent, have dog DNA, which is evident in their colorful dark coats and bigger body size and mass.

Most people refer to these canids as Eastern Coyotes, but there is a growing movement to also call them Coywolves due to their mixed-species heritage. 

Join Floofmania as we get to know these canids and the controversies surrounding their identity.

What are Coywolves?

Coywolves are medium-sized members of the Canidae family, which also includes wolves, coyotes, foxes, and dogs. They live in northeastern North America, where they are most commonly called eastern coyotes. 

Coywolves Are Hybrids

Coywolves are the offspring of coyotes and eastern wolves – two different species from the same dog (Canidae) family. Eastern wolves are similar to red wolves. Their favorite prey, deer, once occupied the lush deciduous forests of the Northeast United States. However, their numbers rapidly declined when Europeans began to arrive in America. 

European settlements led to widespread deforestation and the conversion of forests to agricultural lands. This situation, in turn, decimated the numbers of eastern wolves and their prey through hunting and habitat loss. 

At the same time, the smaller coyotes from southwest America began to travel eastward, finding the “de-wolfed” environment as an ideal niche for them to settle into. 

With few eastern wolves remaining and their pool of potential mates shrinking, they had no choice but to begin mating with coyotes to increase their numbers. As a result, they produced these coywolf hybrids beginning in the early 1900s in the general Algonquin Park, Canada area. 

Coywolves Dominate The Northeast

In addition to eastern wolves, other apex predators, such as gray wolves and mountain lions, were also hunted and exterminated by humans. Their dwindling numbers reduced competition and lessened the pressure felt by coyotes of being possibly preyed on by these larger apex predators.

As a result, coywolves started to make their presence known around the 1930s to 40s in New England and New York. They then spread east and south to saturate the available northeast landscape from the 1970s to the late 90s.

Today, coywolves thrive in forests, mountains, lakeshores, coastlines, agricultural lands, mowed fields, and even in suburban to urban parks and roads. Their range includes: 

  • Throughout the Northeast American region:
    • Mid-Atlantic (from New Jersey and Pennsylvania up to New York) 
    • New England (up to Maine)
  • And north into Canada:
    • Southern Quebec 
    • Ontario
    • Nova Scotia
    • New Brunswick

What Do Coywolves Eat?

Coywolves, like western coyotes, prefer medium-to-small-sized prey like rabbits and mice. They also eat fruits like melons and will not pass up a free meal on roadkill. White-tailed deer are now abundant in the northeast, and eastern coyotes feed on fawns in the spring and summer and adults opportunistically, especially in the winter when the ungulates are disadvantaged in snow.

Coywolves Eat Large Prey

The head and jaw of the coywolf are much larger and more robust than those of a western coyote. They have broader skulls that allow for more mandibular muscle attachment areas. Eastern coyotes, like wolves, have longer and thicker canines accompanied by a much closer set of teeth. These craniodental features give them a much stronger bite force and better mechanical stress resistance from consuming large prey than coyotes.

The smaller western coyote’s skull (left) compared to the much larger northeastern coywolf’s skull (right). 
Photo credit: Mrgordon via Wikipedia

While eastern coyote skulls are considerably bigger than western coyote skulls, they are also sizably smaller than wolf skulls, as noted below:

The visibly larger wolf skull and mandible compared to an eastern coyote. 
Photo credit: Shane Fowler via CBC News

Based on the information presented above, it may come as no surprise that coywolves (ideally in a group or pack of three or more) are more likely to hunt white-tailed deer than coyotes when they’re abundant in an area or easily accessible, especially in winter when ungulate movement is more limited in snow.

Aside from deer, coywolves eat other large prey like seals. In one instance, a lone coywolf was strong enough to take down a young harp seal as prey in Cape Cod during winter. The 110-pound, nearly full-size seal was much heavier than the 30-to-40-pound coywolf, showing how opportunistic and capable these coywolves can get for their meals. 

How Big Are Coywolves?

On average, a coywolf weighs 36 pounds, stands 24 inches from its shoulders to its paws, and measures anywhere from 4 to 5 feet from the tip of its nose to its tail. They average 30-40 pounds, with exceptional individuals weighing 50-55 pounds.

Photo credit: Coywolf by Jonathan Way

Males weigh more than females at 35-40 pounds versus 32-38 pounds, respectively. However, one record-breaking 9-year-old female coywolf weighed 55 pounds. 

Coywolves Are Intermediate In Size Between Coyotes And Eastern Wolves

In 2013, coyote expert Jonathan Way determined that the coywolf was intermediate between its parent species in terms of body mass and size. 

In that study, male western coyotes (Canis latrans) weighed an average of 27 pounds, while females weighed 24 pounds. Northeastern coyotes (Canis latrans x lycaon) were in the middle, with males averaging 36 pounds and females 32 pounds. Eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) were the heaviest of the three, with males averaging 62 pounds. 

The illustration above shows how coywolves compare to their parent species (western coyote and eastern wolf) and the other Canis of North America.
Photo credit: Justin Lee Hirten from The Canadian Field-Naturalist

In sum, male eastern wolves were heavier than male coywolves by 71%. At the same time, male eastern coyotes were 37% heavier than male western coyotes. In layman’s language, eastern coyotes were intermediate in size between their parent species but were numerically closer to western coyotes than eastern wolves.

Here is a table summarizing the three average male canid sizes and measurements:

CanidMale Ave. WeightMale Ave. HeightMale Ave. Length
Coyote27 pounds15 to 20 inches3 to 4 feet
Coywolf36 pounds24 inches4 to 5 feet
Eastern Wolf62 pounds23 to 27 inches5 to 6 feet

What Do Coywolves Look Like?

While coywolves differ in size from their parent species, they nevertheless greatly influence their appearance.

Coywolves have different coat color variations. They can have blond, black, or gray colors in their fur, like Siberian Huskies. The genes of their western coyote parent likely influenced this gray-colored pelage.

In another way, the coywolves’ eastern wolf roots likely influenced their darker and coarser coat colors. Numerous studies say that red wolves (Canis rufus) are genetically similar and probably the same or a very closely related species of the eastern timber wolf (Canis lycaon or Canis lupus lycaon). Unsurprisingly, their reddish coat colors are evident in the coywolf’s orangey-red and black-colored fur, much like a German Shepherd’s. 

According to coywolf expert Jonathan Way, many people have approached him and claimed that the coywolves they have seen appear much bigger than they actually were. This is due to the eastern coyote’s height and thick coat and is likely why people exaggerate their claims of seeing 70-80 pound ‘coyotes’ when they were probably 30-45 pounds in all actuality.

Even though the coat of an eastern coyote is similar in color and thickness to that of a Husky and a German Shepherd, it only weighs about half the weight of these dogs. It actually has the light body build of a Greyhound. Moreover, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the much heavier Labrador Retriever. 

How Did Coywolves Get Their Name?

Taxonomy is a branch of science that studies how organisms are named and classified. The Latin scientific or binomial name serves as a universal language for people to identify and characterize a specific species no matter where they are. In the same way, common names gauge how an organism is perceived, often in a local context, as different places could have their own names for a particular species.

For example, Puma concolor, which literally translates to “puma of one color,” refers to mountain lions. This scientific name will remain the same even if someone cites these animals for a research paper from North America or Asia. These cats also have many common names, such as cougar, puma, catamount, and many more, and their name will likely depend on what locality they have been seen and recognized in.

However, designating a scientific and common name for the coyote hybrids from the East is a messy and puzzling discussion that warrants debates and disagreements among researchers. 

But with the current gathered data and after many years of studying these canines, coyote expert Jonathan Way has some proposals on how to identify these unique canines correctly:

We Should Use The Name “Coywolves” for Eastern Coyotes

Technically, “eastern coyotes” refer to the coyotes living in Northeast North America, while “western coyotes” are those outside of that region.  

However, one writer included the ‘southeast’ coyotes as “eastern” canids. Other researchers even collectively refer to all ‘eastern’ coyotes as one. An author said that ‘coyotes’ from Indiana (from the Midwest region) were also “eastern coyotes”.

Aside from inconsistent term usage that may cause confusion, Way and Lynn (2016) thought the name “eastern coyote” doesn’t completely justify their genetic makeup. 

In 2016, Dr. Jonathan Way and Dr. William Lynn summarized several studies and taxonomic data to determine the genetic background of northeastern coyotes. Their meta-analysis study revealed that eastern coyotes are:

  • 60 to 65% coyote (C. latrans)
  • 25 to 30% wolf (mostly Eastern Wolf [C. lycaon], but also has some Gray Wolf [C. lupus]) 
  • and 10% dog (C. familiaris).

One way that genetic or DNA researchers probably analyzed the different DNA coywolf samples is like this:

The genes they inherited from their coyote parents do indeed make up the majority of their DNA, but almost 40% of it isn’t from coyotes, and, instead, are from wolves and dogs.

Calling these animals coywolves (60-65% in “coy” and ~25-30% in “wolves”) captures their genetic background in one word (in addition, dogs are genetically wolves). More importantly, the term is short and straightforward enough for everyone to catch on and remember when they encounter these creatures. 

Coywolves Are More Than Just A Variant Of Coyotes

Dr. Jonathan Way previously challenged the coywolf’s popular Canis latrans var. scientific name, which meant that the coywolves were a variant of coyotes. Before, he believed they should have the Canis latrans × lycaon name instead to indicate that they differ from western coyotes. 

Researchers argue that coywolves are just part of the larger coyote population from the west and south (Chambers in 2010) and that they are predominantly coyotes (Kays and Monzón in 2017), so there is no need to identify them as “coywolves” or call them their own species.

Compared to eastern wolves, coywolves are closer in size to coyotes. But here are the critical morphological and behavioral differences that make coywolves unique on their own:

Size: Coywolves are undoubtedly more massive than western-living coyotes, with some even reaching twice the average coyote size. Female coywolves observed in the Northeast are also much larger than other documented male coyotes outside the region, weighing around 21% more than them. These facts make them the largest ‘coyotes‘ in the entire North American continent. 

Physical Attributes: Eastern coyotes have bushier tails and longer bodies but smaller and less pointed ears than their western cousins. They also have longer legs and larger paws (3 to 3.5 in. VS. 2.5 in.) than coyotes. 

Photo credit: Jonathan Way

Ecology: Although relatively large at an average of ~10 square miles, a coywolf pack’ territory is much smaller than an average wolf territory. 

Sexual Maturity: Coyotes reach sexual maturity when they turn a year old. On the other hand, coywolves usually don’t reach maturity until two years old. 

Sociology: When coywolves howl, it can initially resemble the wolf’s pitch howl but then turn into the coyote’s high-pitched yip like this:

Coywolves May Be Given The Scientific Name Canis oriens 

In the same 2016 study referred to earlier, Dr. Way and Dr. Lynn concluded that coywolves are a separate Canis species, citing the genetic, morphological, and behavioral differences they summarized and discussed in the paper. 

They suggested that coywolves should be given Canis oriens as their scientific name, which roughly translates to “eastern canid” in Latin. They even proposed this name to the 2016 IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group (International Union for Conservation of Nature, specifically to the Species Survival Commission).

This distinction can distinguish them from both their parental species (western coyote and eastern wolf) and the other canids (gray wolf and dog) from their hybrid background, given that:

  1. A third of the eastern coyote’s mitochondrial DNA [mtDNA] (the C1 haplotype) derives from eastern coyotes;
  2. Another one-third of a Coywolf’s mtDNA (the C9 haplotype) is a coyote-like genetic marker but isn’t found in western coyotes (but is found in eastern wolf populations); 
  3. Microsatellite DNA, which geneticists use for genetic profiling or fingerprinting, indicates that they are unique from eastern wolves and western coyotes;
  4. They share father-inherited Y-microsatellite haplotypes with eastern wolves and dogs; and
  5. They are morphologically different from their parent species, especially in body size. 

Coywolves Should Be Given The Scientific Name Canis latrans x lycaon x lupus

In his 2021 book Coywolf: Eastern Coyote Genetics, Ecology, Management, and Politics, Dr. Jonathan Way conceded that many do not agree and consider coywolves a separate canid species yet. Scientists like Dr. Kays, who is opposed to calling eastern coyotes coywolves, believe that they are still evolving and can still genetically change over time.

However, Dr. Way still fervently believes that the Northeastern North American canines should ideally be called coywolves. Considering the evidence, he suggests that their scientific name could include their known parental species in the proper order of genetic contribution instead of being a new species: Canis latrans × lycaon × lupus. With his current suggested scientific name, this properly accounts for the gray wolf and domestic dogs’ genetic influence on coywolves by adding lupus.

Conclusion

Coywolves are genetically, morphologically, and behaviorally distinct from their western coyote and eastern wolf ancestors. 

While our furry Coywolf or Eastern Coyote friends are still keeping scientists on their toes regarding their names and classification, they are truly fascinating creatures that defy categorization by being adaptable, resilient, and successful while still maintaining their inner wild side in both rural and urban settings. 

Together, let us remain vigilant and hopeful that these canids can one day get the taxonomic recognition and respective conservation they rightfully deserve.

References

Kays R, Curtis A, Kirchman JJ. Rapid adaptive evolution of northeastern coyotes via hybridization with wolves. Biol Lett. 2010 Feb 23;6(1):89-93. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0575. Epub 2009 Sep 23. PMID: 19776058; PMCID: PMC2817252.

Way, J.G. 2021. E-book. Coywolf: Eastern Coyote Genetics, Ecology, Management, and Politics. Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research, Barnstable, MA. 277 pages. Open Access URL: http://www.easterncoyoteresearch.com/CoywolfBook/

Way, J.G. and Lynn, W.S. 2016. Northeastern coyote/coywolf taxonomy and admixture: A meta-analysis. Canid Biology & Conservation 19(1): 1-7. URL: http://canids.org/CBC/19/Northeastern_coyote_taxonomy.pdf

Way, J.G. 2016. Why the eastern coyote should be a separate species: the ‘coywolf’. The Conversation. 11 May. URL: https://theconversation.com/why-the-eastern-coyote-should-be-a-separate-species-the-coywolf-59214

Way, J. G. 2016. Coywolf: A new species in our midst? International Wolf 26(3, fall): 28-29.

Way, J.G. 2013. Taxonomic Implications of Morphological and Genetic Differences in Northeastern Coyotes (Coywolves) (Canis latrans × C. lycaon), Western Coyotes (C. latrans), and Eastern Wolves (C. lycaon or C. lupus lycaon). Canadian Field-Naturalist 127(1): 1–16

Way, J.G., L. Rutledge, T. Wheeldon, B.N. White. 2010. Genetic characterization of Eastern “Coyotes” in eastern Massachusetts. Northeastern Naturalist. 17(2): 189-204.

Way, J. G. 2007. A comparison of body mass of Canis latrans (Coyotes) between eastern and western North America. Northeastern Naturalist 14(1):111-124. 

Way, J. G., and R. L. Proietto. 2005. Record size female Coyote, Canis latrans. Canadian Field-Naturalist 119(1): 139-140.

Way, J. G., and J. Horton. 2004. Coyote kills harp seal. Canid News 7.1: 1-4. URL: http://www.canids.org/canidnews/7/Coyote_kills_harp_seal.pdf.

Authors

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  • 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!

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  • 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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