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Wolves and coyotes can both be spotted in the United States, and instantly distinguishing between them isn't always that simple. Coyotes (Canis latrans) exist in just a single species, while there are two species of wolves stateside -- gray wolves (Canis lupus) and red wolves (Canis rufus), the latter of which is classified as critically endangered due to factors like hybridization.
Coyotes tend to be smaller than both red and grey wolves. They usually weigh between 25 and 45 pounds. Gray wolves are usually significantly larger at between 50 and 100 pounds. Red wolves, too, are generally a lot bigger than coyotes, weighing a maximum of 90 pounds. Coyotes also tend to be more nimble than wolves. Their bodies are also usually a lot more streamlined and lithe than those of wolves.
Coat coloration also can provide helpful hints in the identification of coyotes and wolves. Coyotes tend to have fur that is brown or pale gray. Gray wolves also can have pale gray fur, but their fur can sometimes be as dark as black. Red wolves, as their name indicates, are reddish-brown in coloring. Their bodies also feature numerous yellowish-white patches over their face, chest and limbs.
Wolves' and coyotes' snouts also look markedly different. Coyotes tend to have angular and thin snouts, while those of both red and gray wolves are comparatively a lot broader.
Living Environment Differences
Physical appearance isn't where the differences between coyotes and wolves begin and end. They also are often seen living in different habitats. Coyotes are pretty diverse in this department, as they often reside in deserts, forests, mountains, farming sites, meadows and even city landscapes. Gray wolves are far more restricted in this arena, generally only living in remote tundras and woodlands. Red wolves tend to live in forests, marshes and lowlands close to the water. Wolves tend to need more open space than coyotes.
Carnivorous appetites are one thing that coyotes, gray wolves and red wolves all have in common. Although flesh is the big staple of their diets, they don't have all of the exact same foods in rotation all of the time. Coyotes are big on rodents and rabbits, for instance. Gray wolves gravitate to a lot of deer, beavers and bison. Red wolves take in lots of raccoons, pigs and muskrats. Many of their preferred prey animals overlap.
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Wolf and Coyote Comparison Slideshow
- Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center: Difference Between Coyotes and Red Wolves
- Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks: Wolf & Coyote Identification
- Friends of the Western North Carolina Nature Center: Red Wolves vs. Coyotes
- Michigan Department of Natural Resources: Identifying Wolves and Coyotes
- Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife: How to Recognize a Gray Wolf
- Natural Science Research Laboratory: Red Wolf
- University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Canis Lupus
- California Wolf Center: Comparing Wolves and Coyotes
- University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Canis Rufus
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images