Coyotes and Wolves

Some interesting discussion in the comments for Sunday's Coyote vs. Teen. Croconut posted this comment:

It is interesting that you mention that "emotional reaction" to wolves. In a way, I think I've been guilty of this; when scientists or scientific minded people call dogs "Canis lupus familiaris", I feel it's some kind of sacrilege; when I was a kid and saw a wolf (a huge Canadian wolf) for the first time, it looked right into my eyes and we just stared at each other for a while. It was an impressive experience, just looking into its eyes, and since then, every time I visit the zoo, the wolf is among the animals I spend most time watching. So, when a scientist says that a mop-like lap dog or a chihuahua is a wolf, I just don´t want to believe it :/

There's a question, tho- although I've read many times that the dog is classified as a wolf subspecies, I never knew the coyote had been also classified as such. Care to elaborate on that?

My response:

The idea that the coyote is a form of wolf has been around since at least the Victorian age, but usually as a minority opinion. In the 21st century, the name Canis lupus latrans (species wolf, subspecies coyote) has been floated as a better alternative to the long-standing Canis latrans (coyote as seperate species). The latest reorganization (circa 2009) once again put coyotes outside Canis lupus, though it acknowledged that dogs are a subspecies of lupus. 

Nonetheless, I persist in believing that coyotes are wolves. The most important marker of a species is its breeding boundary. We know that horses and donkeys have diverged into separate species because, even though they can still breed and produce offspring, those offspring are usually sterile. This is not the case with some of the various "species" within the genus Canis. Coyotes interbreed with dogs, producing fertile offspring. (I used to be friendly with a coydog when I was a teenager. He behaved like the other dogs in the neighborhood.) Coyotes also interbreed with gray wolves, as has been proved by genetic analysis in New Brunswick. This is a wild, breeding population of animals, produced without human interference. According to theory, that makes coyotes and wolves members of the same species. And since dogs are now regarded as a subspecies of Canis lupus, their ability to interbreed with coyotes is further evidence that the coyote ought to be included in that species. (Some think the red wolf is also an intergrading between latrans and lupus, though I don't believe that has been proved.)

This really comes down to the question of what constitutes a species. A large part of the basis for separating coyotes is that their evolutionary history seems separate from that of wolves. Canids colonized North America several times, and the coyote as we know it apparently evolved here, separate from the Afro-Eurasian line. That's roughly the story the fossils tell. But there are holes in this story. One is that it assumes, on the basis of location, that the wolf group and the coyote group diverged during their separations. But in fact wolves existed in the American Arctic during the separations, and may, for all we know, have come south on occasion. So it's not certain you have two distinct groups at any point. What is certain is that Old World canids replenished or complicated the North American gene pool repeatedly, and that wolf, dog, and coyote have had plenty of opportunities to interbreed for thousands of years since their last separation.

Another traditional way of defining species has been simply to look at their characters (morphology) and proportions (morphometrics). That's the basis for understanding the very complicated fossil record of Canids in North America (and elsehwere). But imagine looking at a fossil record from our own era. You would see animals as differently built as pugs and greyhounds. These are the same species--but morphometrics would not give you a good basis for figuring that out. It seems to me that the speciation of canids in the fossil record ought to be approached skeptically. 

Another basis for separating species is behavior, and that barrier is crumbling across the kingdom. As discussed in The Book of Deadly Animals, animal behavior, especially among intelligent mammals, is far more variable than we used to think. In the case of wolf and coyote, the social structures tend to differ, with coyotes forming smaller social groups. But this difference seems related to another behavioral difference: that wolves tend to avoid humans, while coyotes are able to co-exist with us in cities. This has always seemed to some zoologists an important difference, but in fact it's a response to conditions, particularly to the behavior of humans. Wolves don't avoid humans everywhere in the world, and they're starting to be less timid around people in North America. Both wolves and coyotes are showing an increasing tendency to approach human habitations for food. They are becoming more like each other because we are behaving differently. Specifically, we are killing them less often.  

Speaking of behavior, Croconut's experience of looking a wolf in the eye is important. It's a moving experience, for some people a mystical one. The reason probably has to do with this very question of species. We are used to certain body language from dogs, and that body language usually includes looking away from a human gaze. To see a similar-looking animal fearlessly return your gaze can be unsettling. It can also induce your respect. This goes to our interactions with other humans. We distrust and disrespect people who won't "face" us. The wolf gains our respect on a subliminal level. (And on a more practical level: if you stare a wolf in the face too long, it may perceive that as a challenge and attack you.)

In The Red Hourglass, I stated that difference as categorical. My cousin argued with me and said her dog would, in fact, look a human in the eye. She put the dog, a fluffy little Scottish terrier, on her lap, and sure, enough, it looked me right in the eye. I realized at that point that this dog had been making me uncomfortable the entire time we'd been in the room together. It didn't behave like a dog, but until my cousin pointed out the staring thing, I hadn't really analyzed it. I decided to experiment. When my cousin wasn't looking, I caught the dog's eye and tried to stare it down. It growled at me and twitched like a speared fish, apparently deciding whether to attack or flee. Pretty much what wolves are said to do. Later, I tried the same experiment on other dogs. All of them looked away; some even put their tails between their legs and rubbed against me so I'd pet them. 

The reasons for that difference in behavior are complicated, and the dog-training people become quite cross with me when I use words like "dominance" to talk about it. Suffice to say that within the range of normal dog behavior, we find both the self-respect we admire in wolves and the predatory instinct we fear. Behavior does not determine the difference between wolf and dog, nor between wolf and coyote. Behavior changes to fit the circumstances and the animal's own past experiences. 

Species is a strange idea, ultimately. It has more to do with our human tendency to think abstractly than with biological reality. In most cases, intergradings between species (which are extremely common) don't bother anybody but biologists. Most people have no practical need to know, for example, whether the Mojave rattlesnake is distinct from the prairie rattlesnake. But the canids are intimately entwined in our own lives. It seems to me that we have so far based our understanding of them not on biology, but on our own uses of them. 


  1. Thanks a lot for the very interesting reply :> I figured it would have something to do with our definition of what constitutes a species. The truth is, as much as we humans like to classify things into neat little categories, nature doesn´t necessarily adjust to our way of thinking. Lions and tigers can interbreed and sometimes, their offspring is fertile; yet no one would say that a lion and a tiger are the same species. The definition is just not good enough in this case. Same happens with other kinds of felines that are obviously different but can still produce fertile offspring.

    I guess a more interesting question would be, do wolves and coyotes see each other as one and the same? According to what I've read, wolves usually chase away and even kill coyotes on sight; yet they do the same with lone wolves or tresspassers from neighboring territories. There are even reports of golden jackals (basically the Old World version of a coyote) joining packs of dholes and other canids, or adopting other canids into their own packs. At the end of the day, it is them who know best, right?

  2. Well put. One of our human assumptions, come to think of it, is that you don't eat your own kind. And since wolves sometimes eat dogs and coyotes, we may assume they don't regard them as conspecifics. But canids are much less likely than we are to pass up easy protein, and cannibalism may not mean much about their sense of identity. Lesser acts of violence, like mere killing, mean even less. We know that wolves sometimes kill wolves who don't belong to their own pack, and we know people sometimes kill people they regard as intruders. It may be that even the idea of "my kind" is alien to canids.

  3. It would appear that way... which reminds me of the stories of feral children "reared" by wolves or stray dogs. Even though I know many have been disputed or exposed as hoaxes, the fact that other cases of animals- often predators- "adopting" young of other species have been reported, I'm still not closed entirely to the possibility. Maybe an interesting subject for future posts?

  4. I'm fascinated by the idea, but frustrated with the difficulty of finding good information.

  5. Not directly on-topic as regards canids, but I'd argue that wolves and coyotes need not belong to the same species based on production of fertile offspring. In the herpetocultural world, crossbred snakes are produced for the pet trade, and at least those within the same genus sometimes are indicated by percentage of parent species--in other words, they can be crossed back to one side or the other. Cats as well--Bengals, Savannahs and a few other breeds of domestic cat contain recent introductions of wildcat blood, diluted by successive breedings to domestics. The serval, which was used in breeding the Savannah, has, I believe, been placed in its own genus by some researchers (I'd have to double check.

  6. To me, all of that suggests that we need to re-examine the entire idea of species. Often, species are defined according to our uses for the animal. We decided that dogs and cats are distinct species because they are so familiar and so frequently involved in our lives. But neither of those animals has integrity as a species.

    Nor is this entirely a product of association with humans. Some snake species "intergrade" in the wild, so that the species boundary is really a matter of range more than genetic integrity.

    I realize what I'm saying violates a lot of common-sense distinctions. But I'd argue that the "common sense" view is really a function of anthropocentrism. Species ought to be a functional idea that says something true about the world, but sometimes it isn't.


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