San Francisco State University
Department of Geography

Geography 316:  Biogeography

The Biogeography of... The North American Coyote (Canis latrans

by  Edward Kim,  student in Geography 316, Fall 2001


Kingdom: Animalia
Canis latrans

Fig. 1                                                                      Source:



Description of Species:

        Canis latrans, or better known as, the North American coyote is one of eight members of the genus Canis that comprise the taxonomic family of Canidae. The family of Canidae consists of, Canis lupus; which is the wolf of Europe, Asia (C. Lupus pallipos), North America, and the Arctic, Canis niger; the red wolf of North America and the Texas Gulf region, Canis latrans; the coyote of Northern and Central America, Canis aureus; which is the Asiatic jackal of South Asia and North Africa, Canis adustus; which is the side striped jackal of Africa, Canis simensis; consists of simenian jackal and the North East Africa Dog, and Canis familiaris; the common house dog. Other species under the family of Canidae are the red fox, grey fox, and the swift fox. According to Fox (1971), “The Canidae are carnivorous mammals, with only four complete digits behind [on their hind feet] and five on the front [feet]…," which means that they are meat eaters and walk with their toes touch the ground.

Canis latrans of North America is often mistaken for the wolf, however, coyotes are usually slimmer and smaller than the wolf. The male coyote, on average, weighs from 9-23 kilograms (15-45 pounds) with an overall length with tail of 120-150 centimeters (40-60 inches), and stands 58-66 centimeters (15-20 inches) high at its shoulder. The female coyote usually tends to be four-fifths as large as the male coyote. Coyotes reach sexual maturity within 1 to 2 years of age and their mating season lasts from January to March with a gestation period of 58-65 days. An average litter of a coyote den consists of 6 pups per year and they live for an average of 15 years. Once the pups are born, both parents watch them closely for the first three weeks until the age of 12-15 weeks when they are taught to hunt. Still, between 50-70 percent of all young coyotes die before adulthood. Also, of the young that die 80 percent is the result of human trapping, shooting, poison, or other control methods.

Fig. 2                                                                      Source:

The fur of the coyote population is generally a tawny gray with dark areas on the hind part of back where the black tipped hair becomes wavy. The legs, paws, muzzle, and the back of the ears are yellowish in color, while the throat, belly, and the inside of the ears are white. The tail is dark on top and a light fawn color on the underside with a black tip. However, coyotes that reside within high elevations tend to have fur that is darker, thicker, and longer, while the underside is nearly all white. Also, the tails of coyotes have a white tip. 

The coyote’s fur is long and well suited to protect itself from the environment and this also allows coyotes to blend well with their surroundings during different seasons.

Fig. 3                                                                                           Source:

The coyote, through its elongated nose, has a highly developed sense of smell, which is used to detect prey and carrion. Their sense of smell is also used to detect the scent left behind by other coyotes as territorial markers. For territorial markers coyotes use urine along with a scent that is released from a gland located at the root of its tail. Due to the use of territorial markers coyotes practice competitive exclusion, which is when a species takes over an area of another species. This is a limiting factor, which is a form of interspecific competition that is resource dependent. 

Fig. 4                                           Source:

Fig. 5                         Source: Desert USA

Fig. 6                          Source: Desert USA



    With its social life built around the mated pair, the coyote’s natural habitat is the open grassland, but it will travel to wherever food is available. Coyotes usually inhibit all life zones of the Desert Southwest from the low valley floors to the crest of the highest mountains and mesas.  Beuler (1973), mentions, “The coyote prefers an open or partially wooded habitat to dense forest, and is perfectly at home where there are few trees – in plains and deserts” (Beuler 1973). Also, coyotes are intolerant of both the extreme cold and immense heat. In addition, some studies done in the desert, valleys, and low foothills, show that coyotes occupy a range of about 10-12 square miles (Bueler 1973). 

Fig. 7                                                                           Source:

    When hunting, the coyote often hunts its prey by its excellent sense of smell, and then stalks it for 20-30 minutes before striking in order to fatigue its prey. Bueler (1973) writes, “Coyotes probably have as varied a diet as any carnivore." Coyotes are known to feed on rabbits, rodents, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, carrion (including each other), all sorts of vegetable matter, and even small pieces of tanned leather. In a comprehensive study done on the results of a stomach analysis of over 8,000 coyotes, Bueler (1973) mentions, “One stomach contained 20 almost whole mice, as well as a song sparrow. The remainder of the diet is filled by domestic livestock, large game animals, birds, non-mammalian vertebrates, insects, and vegetable matter."

Fig. 8                                                                                                                     Source:

Natural History:

    The coyote has evolved from its ancestor, the Miacias, since about 40 million years ago. Today, the coyote inhabits most of North America, Central America, and parts of Canada. Sheldon (1992) writes, “On the North American continent coyotes are now the most widespread wild members of the Canidae." Also, in the last 100 years their range has expanded outward from a distribution centered in the western United States (Sheldon 1992).

    These nocturnal animals are loyal animals staying together with a mate for years in order to raise a litter of pups. Coyotes also have a social organization, which consists of: packs, resident pairs, solitary residents, nomads, and aggregations. Thus far, these social organizations are highly variable and flexible.  



    According to Fox (1973), “Colbert (1939) proposes that the domestic dog is descended from Eurasiatic wolf, but its ancestry is complicated by the effects of the domestication of dogs in different areas, followed by back crossing with wild dogs and trading dogs over continents." The genus Canis is  a member of the dog family, Canidae, which belongs to the mammalian order Carnivora (Nowak 1978). Canidae ancestry is traced back to the Miacis, which were small civet-like carnivorous mammal with short legs and a long body. The Miacis lived about 40 million years ago during the Eocene-Oligocene transition. However, during the Oligocene (12-14 million years ago), two North American types evolved from the ancestor Miacias; these were the large heavy long tailed Daphaenus and the smaller yet slimmer Cynodictis (Fox 1971). The Daphaenus decedents became quite large in the Miocene, about 10 million years ago.  The Cynodictis, on the other hand, evolved with retractile claws for arboreal existence. From the Daphaenus and the Cynodictis evolved the Temnocyon, which again, evolved into the modern hunting dog of Africa and India. Other species that evolved from the Miocene were the Cynodesmus of North America, which developed into large hyena-like animals. The Cynodesmus is an example of convergent evolution because of other species such as the Borophagus and Hyaenognathus that evolved from it. Borophaginae are important to note because these were the largest and most dominant canids of this Pliocene epoch, although they are now extinct (Nowak 1978). According to Fox, an offshoot from the Cynodesmus in the upper Miocene was the Tomarctus, which developed the wolf, fox, and wild dog (Fox 1971). Finally, from the Tomarctus evolved the Canidae family, which is the family of the Canis latrans. The coyote is the most primitive member of its genus in North America, when compared to the wolf. 


Fig. 9                                                                            Source:




    According to Desert USA (2001), “The ubiquitous coyote is found throughout North America from eastern Alaska to New England and south through Mexico to Panama." Also, coyotes have recently been discovered in western Newfoundland and evidence shows that they have been crossing over on ice sheets from Nova Scotia. Though, coyotes tend to stay in the wild, human intervention such as clearing of forests, provision of carrion from domestic livestock, and removal of the wolf are some reasons of coyote expansion in to urban areas in search of food and shelter.
Map of Distribution:

Fig. 10                                                           Source: Canadian Wildlife Service



Other interesting facts:

    The coyote is a nocturnal animal and is most active during the night; however, if man threatens it, it will hunt during the day. The name coyote is a Spanish adjustment of the original Aztec name coyotl. The Latin name Canis latrans means, “barking dog," and it was named by Thomas Say in 1833. Coyotes are very adaptable and utilize a wide range of habitats including forests, clearcuts, farms and woodlots. They prefer habitats which do not contain wolves. Coyotes, because of their tolerance for human activities, can occasionally be seen near farm buildings and at the edge of towns.

    In order to communicate with other coyotes, they will howl, yelp, bark, and huff. When howling the coyote is communicating with others in the area to let others know that it is there. Yelping for a coyote is a celebration or criticism within a small group of coyotes and this is often heard during the day among pups or young animals. However, the bark is thought to display threat when a coyote is protecting or den or meal. Huffing by a coyote is usually used to call pups without making a great deal of noise. 

Fig. 11               

Fig. 12                                                                                                Sources:

    Also, the coyote is capable of galloping at 40 kilometers per hour and able to reach speeds up to 64 kilometers per hour. They also swim well and its agility is incredible, while possibly unique in the animal kingdom. This is useful to the coyote when escaping from wolves, black bears, mountain lions, and eagles, which are the animals that prey on the coyote. Coyotes are also known to harass farmers and their livestock, however, they eat some agricultural pests and in some areas are protected for this reason. Coyote fur is used for coats and pelts can be sold for up to $17. Coyote pups often are kept as pets. Coyotes are a public health problem because they are reservoir hosts of rabies. They are considered a threat to poultry, livestock and crops. Coyotes also compete with hunters for deer, rabbits, and several other game species.


Fig. 13                                                                                            Source:




Atkins, David L. [August 26, 1999]. "Mammalian Order Carivora." Available: [October 25, 2001].

Bueler, Lois E. 1973. Wild Dogs of the World. New York, NY. Stein and Day Publishers.


Canadian Wildlife Services. [October 25, 2001]. “Hinterland Who’s Who.” Available: [October 25, 2001].


Desert USA. [June 10, 1996]. “The Coyote.” Available: [October 25, 2001].


Ewer, R.F. 1973. The Carnivores. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.


Fox, Michael W. 1971. Behavior of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids. New York, NY. Harper and Row.


Giles, Eugene. 1960. “Multivariate Analysis of Pleistocene and Recent Coyotes (Canis latrans) from California.” Pp. 369-390. In California University v.36, no. 3-8. Publications in Geological Sciences. California: University of California Press.


Nowak, Ronald M., et. al. 1978. "Evolution and Taxonomy of Coyotes and Related Canis." Coyotes: Biology, Behavior, and Mangement. New York, NY. Acedemic Press. Pg. 3-15. 


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