What’s the Difference Between Coyotes and Wolves?

A surefire way to discern between these two canines? Check the snout and ears.

Coyote (Canis latrans) along Alaska Highway.
Coyote. Mark Newman / Getty Images

From a distance, it can be challenging to tell a wolf from a coyote. But if you’ve seen one of these similar-looking creatures, chances are you’ve eyed a coyote. Wide-spread and plentiful, coyotes thrive in habitats where people have transformed the natural landscape.

Bigger and bulkier, wolves generally live further from human development. In the past, people hunted wolves—some species to the brink of extinction—to prevent the killing of livestock. Their long, contentious history with humanity has understandably made wolves wary of interaction. 

Learn more about the physical and behavioral qualities of each of these unique species as well as their outlooks for survival.

Key Differences

  • Size: On average, wolves are taller, longer, heavier, and more muscular than coyotes.
  • Range: Coyotes span from Alberta, Canada, through every U.S. state except Hawaii, into Mexico, recently entering Panama; wolves are native to both North America and Eurasia.
  • Face Shape: Coyotes tend to have more fox-like noses with pointed ears in contrast to wolves’ more rounded ears and snouts.
  • Behavior: Wolves are expressive, social creatures whereas coyotes prefer a more solitary life.

Wolf and Coyote Classification

Wolves are carnivores from the family Candidae and the genus Canis, with two recognized species: red wolves (Canis rufus) and gray wolves (Canis lupus). Beyond that, the number of subspecies is highly debated.

Also called the brush or prairie wolf, the coyote (Canis latrans) is a fellow canine in the same family and genus as wolves but, contrary to its colloquial name, is a separate species. 

Did You Know?

Coyotes are so closely related to wolves that they can crossbreed to produce coywolves: fertile hybrids with characteristics of both large canines.

Characteristics of Coyotes vs. Wolves

Three Timber wolves in Autumn
Wolves in the wilderness.

Jim Cumming / Getty Images

Because of their stance and structure, adult coyotes are easily mistaken for bigger domestic dogs. Conversely, small adult wolves can, at a glance, look like large coyotes. 

Size and Build

Standing 18 inches at the shoulder and around four feet in length, coyotes weigh 15 to 45 pounds. Their streamlined build allows them to run slightly faster and maintain that speed for longer than wolves.

In contrast, wolves are powerfully built with longer tails, shorter torsos, wider strides, and more elegant gaits. Wolves weigh between 50 and 100 pounds, their shoulder height ranges from 27 to 33 inches, and they're five to six feet long. Given this physical advantage, wolves tend to attack and kill coyotes in habitats where both species coexist, diminishing the coyote population over time. 

The size differential repeats itself in each animal's tracks. Wolf tracks can exceed five inches long and four inches wide, while coyote tracks are usually less than half that.

Face Shape

Wolves typically have blocky-shaped muzzles compared to coyotes’ narrower, longer noses. In proportion to head size, coyotes’ ears are more prominent, with some coyotes’ ears outsizing wolves more than double their size. Coyote ears are not only bigger but they're also pointed, compared to wolves’ rounded ear tips.

Color

Coyotes only have tan or gray fur, whereas wolves can come in black, gray, mottled white, and brown. As they age, wolves’ fur can lighten into silvery blue or white.

Howling

Two howling wolves
Two howling wolves. Andyworks / Getty Images

Both wolves and coyotes howl as a form of communication over great distances. Coyotes have higher pitched, shorter howls and tend to bark more, especially at the beginning of the cry. They also make yapping and yipping sounds. 

Wolves’ howls have a deeper tone and change pitch more smoothly. They bark—and growl—at the same lower frequency. However, wolf pups bark and howl at higher pitches with more changes in pitch. 

Family Organization and Behavior

Except for rearing pups, coyotes are generally solitary or paired creatures. They are not as aggressive as wolves, but they are mighty hunters and can be provoked if they are starving or defending their young. Still, coyotes are more feared than they present a real threat to humans—mostly because so many people mistake them for wolves.

Wolves, however, are more social creatures who live in packs year-round. Because they are territorial and fight to the death, wolves are aggressive toward other wolves. Still, wolf attacks on humans are rare.

Conservation Status

A coyote in San Francisco.
Coyotes can thrive in urban environments, including cities like San Francisco.

Markus Valek / EyeEm / Getty Images

Neither wolves nor coyotes are at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future, at least in large portions of North America. Even Europe—a continent where many predators, including wolves, were virtually extinct—is witnessing a wolf population resurgence

After 45 years of efforts, gray wolves have been listed as a least-concern species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2020, the gray wolf was delisted from the U.S.’s endangered species list. Simultaneous to this conservation success story is the plight of the subspecies lobo, now considered one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

Because coyotes are so well-adapted to living with humans, they are one of the few species succeeding in the Anthropocene epoch. As deforestation spreads, they too have broadened their territory, participating in the Great American Biotic Interchange—a pathway where species travel up and down the Americas. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How can you tell a wolf from a coyote?

    Coyotes are generally smaller, sleeker canines with gray or tan fur and more pointed facial features. Wolves are their larger, heftier, round-faced counterparts that come in an array of colors.

  • Is a coyote a dog or wolf?

    Both coyotes and wolves are members of the dog family, Canidae.

  • Which is more aggressive, a wolf or a coyote?

    Coyotes are less aggressive than wolves, but because they live closer to people, they’re often misunderstood as aggressive.

  • Are coyote and wolves the same?

    Coyotes and wolves are two different species that come from the same family (Canidae) and genus (Canis).

View Article Sources
  1. "Types of Wolves." International Wolf Center.

  2. Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Coyote or Gray Wolf: How to Spot the Differences.

  3. Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Canid Identification: Wolves, Coyotes and Dogs.