What is the difference between Red Wolves and Coyotes?
Red Wolves (Canis rufus) and Coyotes (Canis latrans) are very closely related and in face 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 true 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 perform DNA tests to be sure.
Red Wolves are a critically endangered species, with only approximately 100 individuals living in the wild. All of them live 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.
While there can be size overlap between the species – some Red Wolves are in fact smaller than some Coyotes. Red Wolves, as a species, can be up to twice as large in both height and weight. Coyotes usually weigh between 25 and 35 pounds; Red Wolves usually weigh between 40 and 80 pounds. Red Wolves are more massive in the head, chest, legs and feet. The coyote’s muzzle is longer and narrower than the Red Wolf’s.
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. Many Red Wolves, however, can have the same colors as coyotes, which tend to be light gray, with some black on the tips of their outer hairs.
The howls of Red Wolves are similar to Coyotes but tend to be of longer duration and lower in pitch. Coyotes tend to have more yapping interspersed with the howls. Again, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference in some individuals.
Interesting Note: We humans used to believe 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. (Less is known about the southeastern coyote, though they have been recognized as being larger than their western counterparts.) In some regions of Northeastern U.S. and Southeastern Canada, this is attributed to a mixed genetic heritage. That is, coyotes interbred with wolves and are taking on wolf characteristics. This occurred when the wolf population in the eastern United States was hunted almost to extinction and had dwindled to a small enough size that wolves would breed with coyotes instead of chasing them off or killing them.
For more information on eastern coyotes see the Urban Coyote section of our website.
If you are anywhere in Eastern North America, outside of coastal North Carolina, and observe a large wolf-like animal, it is most probably an eastern coyote or possibly a gray wolf (Canis lupus) that someone had kept as a pet and dumped in the wild. As with all wild animals, leave it alone!