Classification - What's in a Name?

In 1820 Thomas Say gave the coyote its scientific name, Canis latrans, which means “barking dog”.  Of all wild canines, coyotes are by far the most vocal and have the most complex system of communication.  To learn more about this, click here.

The English name is derived from the word “Coyotl” from the Aztecs, in whose tribe it played an important role in mythology.  Several of their gods and many of their leaders had names containing some derivative of the word "coyotyl”.  A few examples are:
Coyotylnauatl – a hunting god
Heuheucoyotyl – the mischief maker
Coyolxauhqui – the moon goddess

The following is a chart showing the classification of Canis latrans, with a brief description of how it fits into each category:



cells within the organism have a membrane-bound nucleus and multiple specialized organelles



the organism is multicellular, heterotrophic, and has no cell walls present



the organism is bilaterally symmetrical, highly cephalized, triploblastic, has a complete digestive tract, and has a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal pouches, an endostyle, and a post-anal tail present at some point in the life cycle



has hair, is homeothermic, has sweat, sebaceous and mammary glands to provide nourishment for offspring, has a jaw that consists of a single bone, and has facial muscles and lips present



Preys on other animals as a primary source of nourishment



Have five toes on the forefeet and four toes on the hindfeet, non-retractile claws, and often form packs with social hierarchy systems



 A group that includes coyotes, jackals, wolves, and domestic dogs


Canis latrans

a mid-sized canine that can live in a variety of habitats and is incredibly adaptive

DNA analysis has determined that wolves, Canis lupus, descended from coyotes, which have a more primitive anatomy.  Fossil records also show that coyotes predate wolves by several thousand years.  The oldest coyote remains have been found in New Mexico, while wolves appear to have went north over time.  The closest relative of the coyote is the red wolf, Canis rufus, which is severely endangered.  This species fell victim to predator control programs and was unable to cope as well as the coyote.  The small number that exist in the wild currently are the result of intensive programs of reestablishment.  The following is a phylogenetic tree showing the relation between several of the most well-known of the family Canidae.

Phylogenetic Tree created using a compilation of sources. (See references.)
Western coyotes are usually a mixture of variegated browns, black and off-white, while coyotes from farther east tend to be light brown-gray.  Coloration is largely dependent on the geographic location and habitat of the specific population.  They resemble a medium-sized dog, but with thinner legs and smaller feet.  Their eyes are round with yellow irises, and the have bushy tails that can be used as an indicator of mood and health, much like with a domestic dog.  Coyotes usually weigh twenty to fifty lbs at maturity, but the average is around twenty-five.  Males are usually heavier than females and often coyotes living at higher altitudes and in cooler climates are larger than their lowland counterparts.  Eastern coyotes are also substantially larger than their western counterparts, and have been compared in build to German shepherds.  This sub-species is thought to be slightly more closely related to the wolf.