My camera traps repeatedly pick up photos of the coyotes that roam our forests and fields. Coyotes, coydogs, brush wolves, they go by many different names, but what are they really? A lot of folks call them coydogs, believing they’re half-coyote, half domestic dog hybrids. But breeding biology and other factors make it extremely unlikely that these hybrids would survive in the wild. So, what are they? Curiosity (mine and my friends’) aroused, I set out to find out just what they are – here’s a synopsis:
For decades people have recognized a wild canine in the northeast that they have called eastern coyotes. However, the large size of the animals – bigger than western coyotes, but smaller than wolves – has confused people about what they really are. DNA studies have now shown that eastern coyotes are a mixture of coyote (Canis latrans) and the eastern (or Algonquin) wolf (Canis lycaon), but primarily coyote. A study published in Northeastern Naturalist made the case that eastern coyotes should more accurately be called "coywolves". Apparently these coywolves originated in southern Ontario, in or near Algonquin Provincial Park, when coyotes moving in from the west bred with eastern wolves.
These coyote/wolf hybrids subsequently spread south and east through New England and New York to occupy a range that had been empty of large wild canines since the 1800s. Just when this movement occurred is open to question: there are photos from Pennsylvania taken in the 1930s showing animals that appear identical to the animals we see now. Some scientists currently recognize the coywolf as one of four wild canine species in North America, the others being gray wolves (C. lupus) in the western states and Canadian provinces, eastern wolves (C. lycaon) in eastern Canada and formerly in the eastern U.S., and western coyotes (C. latrans).
Coywolves are larger in overall body size than western coyotes; have larger, stronger jaws and bigger skulls, allowing them to hunt white-tailed deer. Like western coyotes – but unlike wolves – coywolves can adapt to and survive near humans, thriving in the country, in suburbs and in cities – including within parts of New York City.
An analysis of coyote weights throughout their range found that coywolves are heavier than the coyotes found in the states of the midwest. Coywolf males are heavier than females, and coywolves are so large that females from the northeast average over 20 percent heavier than male coyotes from elsewhere. Most of the studies in the northeast found numerous coywolves weighing more than 40 pounds; coyotes of that weight are rare in other parts of the country.
Ecologically, coywolves have a larger home range than most western coyotes (but at about 10 square miles, smaller than that of wolves); travel long distances (10–15 miles) daily; eat a variety of food including deer but mainly medium and small prey (rabbits, mice and voles) plus carrion; and often live in family groups of up to five or six. The coywolf has characteristics (and DNA) that can be seen as a blending of coyote and wolf.
Even though the term “coywolf ” may be appropriate for this hybrid creature, “eastern coyote” rolls off the tongue more easily, and genetically they seem to be about 80-90% coyote – so I’ll probably continue to call them eastern coyotes.