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These two animals have similar coat colors, but different facial characteristics. The coyote on the left has a narrow snout and small nose pad, with large ears relative to its head size. The wolf on the right has a broad snout and large nose pad, with small ears relative to its head size. IMPORTANT: Wolf pups in mid-summer and fall can closely resemble coyotes, and it can be nearly impossible to tell them apart.
COYOTE (Canis latrans)
GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)
Distinguishing dogs from wolves can be challenging. Many of the traits possessed by wolves can also be found in domestic dogs, so no single trait should be used to definitively distinguish a dog from a wolf. When observing an animal, it is desirable to consider as many of the following traits as possible, including the animal’s behavior. Wild wolves will almost never approach a human.
DOG (Canis lupus familiaris)
It can be impossible to distinguish a large dog from a wolf from a single track. Instead, if possible look for the pattern of the trail left by the animal. Dogs’ pattern of walking reflects their domestic lifestyle. They do not rely on stealth, and tend to walk erratically. Their hind foot tracks seldom register within their forefoot tracks. They may also approach strange objects directly. Wolves on the other hand, tend to walk more directly when travelling. Their trails reflect this, as the track of the hind foot is placed within or directly in front of the forefoot. Wolves will also approach strange objects cautiously, often circling widely to investigate rather than approaching directly.
Thanks to Adirondack Almanack; Alderleaf Wilderness College; California Wolf Center; Cook County Coyote Project; Andy Dobos – Three Red Trees School of Natural Living; Jim Halfpenny (A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America); Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management; Iron Pride Alaskan Malamutes; Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Richard Badger Photography; Western Wildlife Outreach; and Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary for images and/or content.
Wildlife Investigations Lab
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(916) 358-2790 | WILAB@wildlife.ca.gov