Wolf vs. Coyote: What’s The Difference?

Although wolves and coyotes may look the same, they are two distinct species. Their physical appearances, social behavior, and even natural habitats differ widely.

Sep 24, 2023By Andrew Olsen
coyote wolf difference

The American wolf and the coyote are two fascinating canid species that roam the North American wilderness. While they may appear similar at first glance, a closer examination reveals distinct characteristics that set them apart. In this blog post, we will delve into the world of these remarkable creatures and explore the differences between American wolves and coyotes. From their physical attributes and behavior to their ecological roles, understanding these distinctions is essential for appreciating the unique qualities of each species. So, let’s embark on a journey to unravel the intriguing contrasts between American wolves and coyotes.

Physical Characteristics

USFWS coyote vs gray wolf infographic
Photo credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

One of the main ways to tell American wolves apart from coyotes is by looking at their physical characteristics. American wolves are generally bigger and stronger than coyotes. On average, wolves can weigh between 70 to 150 pounds (±31.8--68 kg) and stand around 26 to 32 (66—81 cm) inches tall at the shoulder. In contrast, coyotes typically weigh between 15 to 50 pounds (±6.8—22.6 kg) and have a height of about 20 to 22 inches (±50—56 cm). You could say a coyote matches small to medium-sized domestic dogs in size. Wolves also have a sturdier build, with a broader head, larger jaws, and a more solid body structure than slender and agile coyotes.

Another way to distinguish them is by their fur color. Wolves often come in different colors, such as gray, black, white, or a mix of these, depending on where they live. On the other hand, coyotes usually have gray or reddish-brown coats with white patches on their throat and belly.

Habitat and Distribution

coyote in field
Photo credit: Jukka Jantunen/Shutterstock.com

The habitats and distributions of American wolves and coyotes also vary. Wolves are generally associated with remote wilderness areas, such as forests, mountains, and tundra regions. They are highly adaptable and can be found in diverse ecosystems, including the Arctic, boreal forests, and even some deserts. However, their populations have significantly declined and are now limited to specific regions such as national parks due to human encroachment.

Coyotes, on the other hand, have displayed remarkable adaptability to various environments. They are highly versatile and can thrive in various habitats, including forests, grasslands, deserts, and urban areas. Coyotes have successfully expanded their range throughout North America, including urban environments; coyotes are losing their fear of humans in urban areas probably because people intentionally or unintentionally feed them. Sometimes you may even spot a coyote in your backyard, but usually, they are passing through and don’t prove to be a threat. The best you can do to scare them away is to make lots of noise and make yourself look as big as possible. Click here for more tips on what to do if you spot a coyote in the wild or urban area.

Social Behavior

coyotes cornering juvenile courgar
Photo credit: Lori Iverson/USFWS

The social behavior of American wolves and coyotes also exhibits notable differences. Wolves are highly social animals that live in cohesive packs. A typical wolf pack consists of a socially dominant breeding pair, the previous year’s offspring, new pups, and sometimes other subordinate members unrelated to the other wolves. They have a well-defined social structure and engage in cooperative hunting and territory defense. Rearing the young pups is an ‘all paws on deck’ situation because this ensures the survival of the pups and the whole group.

In contrast, coyotes display a more flexible and adaptable social structure. While they can form small family groups consisting of a mated pair and their offspring, they are also known to live as solitary individuals or in loosely organized groups. Coyotes exhibit territorial behavior, but their territories are typically smaller than wolf packs.

Hunting and Prey Preferences

coyote sniffing urban neighborhood
Photo credit: Matt Knoth/Bigstock

American wolves and coyotes have distinct hunting and prey preferences. Wolves are primarily apex predators, specializing in hunting large ungulates such as elk, moose, muskox, elk, and deer. They are highly skilled at cooperative hunting, employing strategic ambushes and stamina-based pursuits to bring down their prey. Wolves have strong jaws and powerful teeth, allowing them to take down larger animals.

Coyotes, on the other hand, are opportunistic predators with a more varied diet. They are known for their adaptability and can hunt a wide range of prey, including small mammals like rabbits, rodents, and even birds. Coyotes are also scavengers and can consume carrion or rely on plant-based food sources when necessary. Urban coyotes can attack household pets like cats and small dogs, so keeping your pets safe and an eye out for coyotes venturing into your yard is best.

Vocalizations and Communication

wolves howling
Wolves howling

Vocalizations and communication methods differ between American wolves and coyotes. Wolves have a diverse repertoire of vocalizations, including howls, barks, growls, and whines. Howling, the sound most of us associate with wolves, plays a crucial role in long-distance communication and maintaining pack cohesion. Wolves use howls to announce their presence, locate pack members, and reinforce social bonds. Think of it as a wolf choir singing their heart out.

Coyotes communicate through vocalizations, including howls, barks, yips, and yelps. Their howls are typically shorter and higher-pitched compared to wolves. Coyotes use vocalizations to communicate territory boundaries, coordinate group activities, and express alarm or distress.


urban coyte
An urban coyote skulking in a neighborhood

American wolves and coyotes may share a common ancestry and inhabit the same North American landscapes, but their differences highlight the remarkable diversity within the canid family. From their physical characteristics and habitat preferences to their social behavior and hunting strategies, each species has evolved unique adaptations suited to their ecological niche. By understanding these distinctions, we can better appreciate these magnificent creatures’ intricate and awe-inspiring world. So, the next time you encounter a canid in the wild, take a moment to observe and appreciate the subtle nuances that differentiate American wolves and coyotes, embodying the rich tapestry of nature’s diversity.

Andrew Olsen
By Andrew Olsen

Andrew is a proud cat dad of three spoiled cats, Schopenhauer, Poppy, and Empress Sisi. Growing up with various pets instilled a lifelong love for animals in him. His work in environmental management, particularly water governance, gave him first-hand experience with the delicate balance between humans and animals — domestic and wild. His favorite hobbies include browsing and buying cat toys, gardening, growing fresh catnip for his cats, drinking tea, and reading with a cat on his lap.