Coyote vs Red Wolf – Can they Breed?

Last Updated on September 17, 2022 by Stone

Coyote vs red wolf – what is the difference and can they breed? While they are two very different animals they can and will mate. The resulting offspring is neither coyote nor wolf but a hybrid. This hybrid can thrive, grow to sexual maturity, and mate to produce more hybrids. Some people refer to these as coywolves. In order for breeding to happen, the environmental conditions have to be such that these two animals would choose to mate. Read on to find out how this may have played out on Galveston Island in Texas where coyote-like animals have been found with high-content red wolf DNA.

Coyote vs Red Wolf – Can they Breed?

Yes, they can if the conditions are unfavorable for breeding with their own species. The resulting offspring is a coyote wolf hybrid. Interestingly this hybridization was discovered in the coyotes of Galveston Island in Texas. These coyotes are actual red wolf coyote hybrids, making them very special since red wolves are the most endangered wolves on the planet. They have already been extinct in the wild once and after an initially successful reintroduction program in North Carolina are now down to less than 20 animals.

how can you tell a wolf from a coyote?

It can be difficult to tell a wolf from a coyote, especially a larger coyote. A general rule of thumb is that a wolf is bigger, and bulkier while a coyote is smaller, sleek, and lighter on its feet. Wolves have larger, broader heads with well-blended and less distinct facial markings. They also have more fur around their ears with rounded tips.

Wolves’ eyes are slanted with colors ranging from amber to yellow. Their legs are longer, their snouts are long, bigger paws, and they have a ruff of fur around the neck or shoulder area and a straight bushy tail. Their body length ranges from 5-6 feet whereas a coyote is 3.5 – 4 feet. It is trickier to tell a red wolf from a coyote since the red wolf is only slightly larger than coyotes and smaller than the massive gray wolf.

If you see a canid and you are in wolf and coyote country, perhaps the easiest question is whether the animal looks bigger than a large dog like a German Shepard (wolf) or more like a medium-sized dog (coyote). If it makes a low-pitched noise it is probably a wolf, but if you hear high-pitched noises with yips and yowls it is likely a coyote. The very fact you are seeing a wolf-like canid means it is probably a coyote since wolves are more elusive and avoid people. If a wolf was around probably wouldn’t even know it.

Coyote vs Red Wolf

Can Coyotes and Red Wolves Breed?

Coyote vs red wolf – can they breed? Ideally, these two species would not breed, but when conditions are bad for both they will out of necessity. For example, if the population of both wolves and coyotes in an area is low. The resulting offspring known by some as coywolves are capable of growing, mating, and producing more offspring.

This is not always the case when two species breed. The mule for example is the male offspring of a male donkey and female horse and is sterile. This intermingling of coyotes and wolves is what researchers recently discovered with the canids on Galveston Island in Texas.

Texas Wolves – Are they Extinct?

Gray wolves were listed as endangered in Texas in 1967; by 1970 they were extinct. Red wolves were met with the same fate toward the end of the 1980s. This is what makes the recent discovery on Galveston Island so exciting. The Island is just 27 miles long and 3 miles wide at its widest point (47.5 km and 4.8 km respectively). It is connected to the mainland by a causeway and a ferry service. There is also a 2000-acre state park in the middle of the island.

There might not be wolves roaming Texas, but there is Wolf DNA out there in the canids roaming the island. Not quite coyotes, the genetics indicate that these animals have DNA from wild red wolves that are not the same as the red wolves released from the captive breeding program in North Carolina in 1987. The DNA is more ancestral to Red Wolves that are now extinct.

It seems that this island created the ideal conditions for ancestral red wolves and coyotes to breed. Red wolves may have made it to the island (wolves can swim miles), found a place with few mating options, and turned to the coyote population. Another possibility is that when wolves were still on the Texas mainland they bred with coyotes who then populated the island.

Either way, coyotes would be adept at surviving even as the human population grew. Their adaptability and resilience are what have preserved the red wolf genetic code long after the actual red wolves have vanished from the landscape.

How was Red Wolf DNA in Coyotes Discovered on Galveston Island?

A photographer and biologist by the name of Ron Wooten started photographing the local coyote population on the island back in 2013 and noticed that some of the canids did not look like regular coyotes and this piqued his interest. One day he came across two dead coyotes on the side of the road and collected samples from both that could be later used for DNA testing.

While he was searching for a lab willing to test them, he kept them in his freezer. Several labs turned him down, but one lab at Princeton University was convinced to give it a shot based on Wooten’s enthusiasm and some photographs of the animals that he had taken. Bridget VonHoldt, a Princeton scientist thought it was worth a look.

The samples were compared against those of wolves and coyotes from across North America including red wolves from the captive breeding program. What researchers found surprised everyone. The samples from Galveston Island indicated that these “coyotes” were more similar genetically to red wolves than southeastern coyotes.

Brief History of Galveston Island.

As mentioned above, Galveston Island is long (27 miles) and skinny (3 miles wide at its widest point). It is known as a barrier island. The island is connected by Interstate highway 45 via a causeway. As the google image above suggests it’s not a place you would expect to find DNA from one of the most endangered wolves on the planet. The island is pretty developed, and, amazingly, coyotes are able the survive here. The 2000-acre state park in the middle of the island surely helps.

It is thought that Native Americans used the island for seasonal hunting and fishing. Europeans may have reached the island as early as 1528 when the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have made a brief stopover. Europeans settled on the island in 1816. It became a base of operations for piracy and the slave trade for many years until the US Navy forced the pirate Jean Lafitte to leave.

As the Republic of Texas grew the island became a major port, and immigration destination, and the population increased. Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845, and the island quickly became the state’s major population center and the largest cotton shipping port in the world.

The US Civil war saw the island come under the control of the confederates until the end of the war, and in 1900 a hurricane destroyed much of the settlements and killed around 6000 people.

Today, the city of Galveston has about 54,000 people, and the smaller town of Jamaica beach also located on the island has about 1,100 people.

North Carolina Red Wolves Bleak future

North Carolina is the only place in America where Red Wolves are found, and they are all descendants of the captive breeding program release which included just 12 animals. Prior to this red wolves were extinct in the wild. A decade ago they reached a peak of 120 but today number is less than 20 mainly due to human activity such as poaching and vehicle collisions.

In addition, the legalization of night hunting for coyotes didn’t help. Some of these wolves may have been killed because they are not much bigger than coyotes and it would be hard for someone to tell the difference during the day, let alone at night. Many people blame mismanagement by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Since the gene pool has become so shallow, it is quite possible wild red wolves will once again become extinct in the coming years.

The fact that canids on Galveston Island contain high percentages of wild red wolf DNA means they could be the answer to the lack of diversity in genes found in the wild red wolf population. If another attempt is made at establishing wild red wolves this source of DNA diversity might be the key to success.

In addition to Galveston Island, there have been discoveries of similar coywolves in Louisianna with red wolf DNA.

Galveston Ghost Wolves – How’d they get that name?

Some of the genetic variants researchers found did not resemble any of the other canid DNA studied or even the DNA from the modern red wolves who were descendants of the captive breeding program. It is thought that this DNA was passed down from red wolves that used to roam the area. These coywolves of Galveston Island have an ancestral form of red wolf DNA – from animals that are now extinct – hence the term ghost wolves.

Before all of the human activity in the area, red wolves roamed the southwest but were hunted and killed off. Coyotes are much more resilient as a species. You won’t find a wolf anywhere near a city, but coyotes can thrive in and around cities. They are not deterred by human activity. They are not as particular about where they live.

Wolves prefer a much larger range with access to larger prey to sustain them. So while the wolf population disappeared, the coyote population continued. Somewhere along the way, the remaining wolves mated with what was available⸺coyotes.

Red wolves are more laid back and lack the gray wolf’s aggressive pack mentality and the coyote’s adaptability. When it comes to coyote vs red wolf, it is the coyote who is best suited for life on the island. This adaptability of the coyote has kept the red wolf DNA going while the actual red wolf is gone.

Coyote vs Red Wolf – Can they Breed? “File:Westerncoywolf.png” by L. David Mech, Bruce W. Christensen, Cheryl S. Asa , Margaret Callahan, Julie K. Young is licensed under CC BY 1.0.

Resurrecting a Ghost

Since some of the hybrids found on Galveston Island have a high percentage of red wolf DNA, scientists are excited about the potential to restore diversity in the wild red wolf population. They could do this by simply breeding high red wolf content canids with wild red wolves or using more complex methods such as gene-editing techniques or artificial reproductive technology.

Gene editing is a technology that allows scientists to alter an organism’s DNA. One such gene-editing technique that is fairly new that you may have heard about is CRISPR-Cas9. It is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than some older methods. It was developed from a naturally occurring gene editing system that bacteria use as an immune response to viruses.

Without going into the nuts and bolts, it allows scientists to cut a segment of DNA and replace it with a customized DNA sequence. Using this technology, ancestral DNA sequences from the Galveston Island coywolves could replace DNA segments from Red Wolves descended from ancestors in captivity. This would add much-needed variation back into the population and increase the chances that the species can survive.

As it stands now, red wolves face a double whammy of being victims of human activity, and then if they do survive, they face health problems associated with inbreeding. These problems include poorer reproductive efficiency, higher mortality rates, lower growth rates, and a higher frequency of hereditary abnormalities.

DNA Molecules

Why hasn’t the Red Wolf DNA content been diluted out?

As the red wolves were killed off and the numbers dwindled, coyotes who often compete for some of the same food sources moved in and filled the ecological void. Some remaining red wolves mated with these coyotes and created hybrids. You would expect that with red wolves gone from Texas by the late 1980s leaving these hybrids to only mate with coyotes, the red wolf DNA content would dilute down generation after generation.

Eventually, the hybrid population should revert to full coyote again. It’s been 35 years, and that hasn’t happened. It’s possible that the hybrids are more selective when they breed and perhaps prefer other hybrids. As of now, no one can say for sure.

What happens now regarding Galveston ghost wolves?

What should be done with an animal that is 50% super endangered red wolf and 50% coyote? Should these animals be protected or will that bring out the wolf haters who would start slaughtering them with assault weapons as they do with full-fledged wolves in places like Wisconsin, Montana, and Idaho? This is Texas after all, and I can already envision Ted Nugent booking a flight.

These canids on Galveston Island right now have no protections. Coyotes are considered vermin by many governments and vectors for diseases like rabies. Wolf conservation has unfortunately been made a political issue by right-wing conservatives and the way America is right now, people will travel to Galveston Island and kill these canids just to make a point.

I don’t envision Governor Greg Abbott doing anything to stop that. That might sound far-fetched, but some groups lie in wait just outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park ready to slaughter any wolf that crosses the invisible boundary. Wolf hatred is very real. Perhaps it’s best to let these animals fly under the radar and just be left alone.

Coyote vs Red Wolf – Final Thoughts

It is truly amazing that these red wolf coyote hybrids were living and surviving right under everyone’s nose. They harbor the DNA of one of the most endangered wolves on Earth. Now that the cat or wolf is out of the bag so to speak, it will be interesting to see what happens next. Will these coyote wolf mixes receive some sort of protection or will they be treated like regular coyotes which are the opposite of endangered?

Coyotes have expanded all over North America even to the island of Newfoundland. They are poised to expand into South America now as they have been spotted in eastern Panama. While regular coyotes are ubiquitous, maybe there could be special protections carved out just for those on Galveston Island. The future of an entire species might just depend on it.

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5 thoughts on “Coyote vs Red Wolf – Can they Breed?”

  1. It is amazing that coyotes might allow the Red Wolf species to survive. They are definitely endangered as their low numbers show so I hope that the experts will plan a program of protection for these unique hybrids and that this will eventually result in the survival of the Red Wolf. Too many species have been lost and any that can be restored should be worth preserving. It would certainly be amazing if the Red Wolf population could reach healthy numbers again.

    Reply
  2. Interesting write-up. 

    I have always been fascinated with wolves and coyotes. More so after watching the series about werewolves and I’m curious about what will happen to these animals in the future. Will they go extinct like the gray and red wolves? Just the thought that no wolves would remain leaves me uneasy. 

    However, learning of the possibility for red wolves and coyotes to breed has sparked the hope in me that these animal species will remain. Thanks to the ever-advancing technology; we can actually preserve these rare animal species.

    I really hope that the government would allot a certain amount to fund these breeding programs. 

    By the way, you said something that picked my curiosity. It’s about the Texas governor who wouldn’t lift a finger to save the endangered wolves and coyotes. What made you say that those right-wing conservatives are wolf haters?  

    Reply
    • Right-wing conservatives have politicized wolves as something liberals living in cities care about. The slaughter of wolves since 2020 has been unprecedented in conservative states like Idaho, Wisconsin, Montana, and Wyoming. Wolves are not hunted following the fair chase concept in these states. They are being baited, hunted at night, chased down with helicopters, and GPS, run to the point of exhaustion by dogs, snared in wire traps, and even their pups are killed. As soon as a wolf leaves Yellowstone there are people waiting to kill it and not for the fur either. It is no longer about conservation but slaughter.

      Reply
  3. I feel so ignorant lol because I sure thought that there was no difference between a coyote and a red wolf. What inspired you to learn so much about these two animal species? I understand that this is your passion, but I’m curious about how this materialized. Keep providing the facts and I promise to never make that mistake again.

    Reply

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