A Wolf Among Us? How Black Coyotes Came to Be.

January 17, 2024 By: Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy and Dr. Joey Hinton

To hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts who appreciate unique and uncommon characteristics in wildlife, melanistic coyotes, also known as black coyotes, are striking animals. The rare color morph is only seen in eastern coyote populations, especially those in the southeastern United States.

Black coyotes often stand in stark contrast to their surroundings and their more common gray counterparts. This unusual appearance makes them easily recognizable, piquing the interest of hunters who wish to learn more about their ecology and how to manage them.

There is much public speculation about black coyotes. Often, the public assumes they are the product of coyote hybridization with dogs and are colloquially called “coydogs.” However, research suggests more complex and nuanced explanations, such as the extirpation of the red wolf, coyote hybridization with wolves and dogs, adaptations to specific environments, and other ecological factors. To untangle this nuanced story, we first need to understand the genetic cause of melanism. 

What is Melanism in Coyotes? 

Most people know darker colors in mammals are attributed to a pigment called “melanin.” The general understanding is an animal can be darker or lighter depending on how much melanin it has. While this is true, it’s not the whole story. 

There are two types of melanin that control pelage, or coat color, in mammals. These are “eumelanin” and “phaeomelanin.” The former controls brown and black pigments, while the latter influences yellow and red pigments. Melanism is a trait that results from the higher production of eumelanin, giving the animal a black coat, as with melanistic deer.

black coyotes
A black coyote on trail-camera in Southeast Georgia in 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas Jr.

A team of researchers led by principal investigator Gregory Barsh and then-graduate student Tovi Anderson, of Stanford University, found that the genetic mutation responsible for melanism in North American gray wolves arose roughly 12,000 years ago, when they first migrated into North America from Asia. The mutation then spread across the continent as gray wolves dispersed into new regions. However, coyotes would not acquire the mutation until the 20th century when they began colonizing eastern North America and interbreeding with wolves and dogs.

Genetics are only one explanation for why an animal might turn out darker than others. Environmental influences can also have an impact on gene expression. Through the years, many researchers have tried to explain why certain habitats seem to cause specific coat colors in animals like coyotes and wolves that differ from other parts of their range. One of the most well-known theories is Gloger’s Rule, named for German zoologist and ornithologist Constantin W. L. Gloger (1803-1863). 

Where to Find Black Coyotes  

There are many different interpretations of Gloger’s rule. At its core, it says animals should be darker in warm and humid regions because these climatic conditions promote dense vegetation, resulting in shadier environments. Our research supports this notion. 

We used 30 years of data collected from 460 coyotes, 532 red wolves, and 160 red wolf/coyote hybrids. Although red wolves and hybrids only occurred on the Albemarle Peninsula of North Carolina, coyotes were captured and measured across four states. There were no black red wolves, but 8.5% of red wolf/coyote hybrids were melanistic. Coyotes, on the other hand, showed melanism in Alabama (1.9%), Georgia (3.6%), North Carolina (5.9%), and South Carolina (5.4%). Altogether, 5.7% of all coyotes captured were black.

black coyotes

Dr. Joey Hinton examining a sedated black coyote captured for research in Louisiana. Research suggests 5.7% of coyotes in the Southeast are melanistic.

Our findings, like previous research, indicate that occurrence of melanism was relatively low. Still, the results were consistent with the region’s coyote populations in that melanistic individuals made up less than 10% of coyote populations in the Southeast. 

We also found black coyotes preferred darker environments with increasing canopy cover, such as coastal bottomland forests and other types of wetland forests. Gray coyotes preferred open environments like agricultural fields and early successional cover. Although shadier environments help to maintain melanism in coyotes, they aren’t the reason this trait arose. 

How Black Coyotes Came to Be 

Prior to their colonization of eastern North America, melanism was absent in coyotes. Our research indicates those in the east picked up the trait by interbreeding with red wolves, a species for which melanism was so common, its Florida populations were first named Canis niger (later changed to Canis rufus) by renowned American naturalist William Bartram in the late 1700s. Other naturalists corroborated Bartram’s observations, with James Audubon noting black red wolves from Texas to Indiana and the Carolinas, most notably. 

The loss of the red wolf along the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf Coast regions opened the coyote’s southern colonization route into eastern North America. It was along this route that black coyotes were first documented.

The loss of the red wolf played a central role in coyote colonization of eastern North America. For example, extensive government-sponsored eradication campaigns snuffed out red wolf populations in the central and eastern areas of Oklahoma and Texas, southern Missouri, and Arkansas by the 1940s, and most of Louisiana by the 1950s. Red wolves along the Tensas and Atchafalaya rivers of eastern Louisiana were extirpated during the 1960s, leaving the last populations of wolves in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. 

black coyotes
Melanistic red wolf shown in a foot-hold trap in Winn Parish, Louisiana, 1948. Photo courtesy of T.E. “Doc” Harris family.

Consequently, the loss of the red wolf along the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf Coast regions opened the coyote’s southern colonization route into eastern North America. It was also along this route that black coyotes were first documented. During the 1950s, Arthur Halloran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was the first to document the appearance of black coyotes in Oklahoma as coyotes replaced the extirpated red wolf. 

By the 1970s, the red wolf was reduced to a small remnant population of 100 to 200 wolves spread out along the coastal region of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. To prevent their complete extinction, the USFWS created the Red Wolf Recovery Program in 1973, following the passage of the Endangered Species Act. 

Ultimately, USFWS captured 17 red wolves to establish a captive-breeding program. However, only russet-colored red wolves were used as founders for the captive population, and the melanistic red wolf was lost. By that time, though, the melanistic genes had been passed to colonizing coyotes through hybridization. Coyotes then spread the genes throughout the eastern United States as they expanded their geographic range.

Modern Melanism in the Coyote 

Today, melanism occurs predominantly in contemporary coyote populations that replaced red wolves throughout the Southeast. This includes the Albemarle Peninsula of northeastern North Carolina, where a small, reintroduced population of red wolves exists. 

Philip S. Gipson, then with the University of Nebraska, was the first person to investigate melanism in eastern coyotes during the mid-1970s, when they were first making inroads into Arkansas. At this time, the population was predominantly coyote-like, with little red wolf and dog influence present. 

Gipson reported that nearly 8% of coyotes in Arkansas were melanistic, with most black coyotes occurring in the northern areas of the state. Because many of the black canids could not be differentiated from typical coyotes, Gipson attributed some of the occurrence of melanism to hybridization with red wolves in Oklahoma and Texas. 

He believed this hybridization occurred before the coyote’s entry into Arkansas because many of the black coyotes were small and western-like. However, Gipson also thought that larger coyotes, which apparently had wolf or dog genetic influence, could have acquired the genes for black coats via more recent hybridization. This alternative would have happened after the coyote’s entry into Arkansas when some red wolves were still present.

Forty years would pass before researchers would attempt another study on melanism in eastern coyotes. In 2015, Gretchen and Danny Caudill, then with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, collected nearly 250 coyote carcasses throughout the state and found that more than 7% of individuals over 4 years old were melanistic, with no distinct geographic distribution of the trait. Shortly after they published their work, a study by Christopher Mowry, professor of biology at Berry College, reported the occurrence of black coyotes in northwest Georgia.

black coyotes
A melanistic coyote captured and radio collared in Tyrrell County, North Carolina, in 2010. About 6% of North Carolina coyotes are black. Photo by Dr. Joey Hinton.

Today, most coyotes still have coats predominantly made up of brown, gray, black, and white hair which is referred to as the “gray” coat color. On the contrary, melanistic coyotes exhibit a smoky-black or striking black coloration, along with a white chest spot and some white on the feet. As far as we know from our research, this is the most significant physical difference, as black coyotes aren’t larger than gray ones. (Instead, the biggest coyotes in the East are those with substantial red wolf ancestry. They’re restricted to the Albemarle Peninsula of North Carolina and isolated areas along coastal Texas and Louisiana.) However, even though the black coyote’s body size doesn’t differ from gray ones, its space use and habitat preferences do. 

Behavioral Differences 

We radio-collared and monitored coyotes across Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, and we found the average home-range size of black coyotes was 1.6 times larger than for gray coyotes (10.5 square miles vs. 6.7, respectively). Further, black coyotes showed a stronger preference for areas with canopy, shadows, and wetland cover than did gray coyotes. 

Black coyotes also appeared to have greater annual survival rates than gray ones at 83% vs. 64%, respectively. This indicates that 17 of every 100 black coyotes die annually compared to 36 of 100 gray coyotes. Given that black animals preferred darker environments, their dark coats likely contributed to a more cryptic appearance under dense canopy cover, helping them to evade hunters. This is one of many reasons why researchers believe some coyotes maintain the melanistic trait. 

black coyotes
A black coyote caught on a trail-camera in north Georgia in December 2017. Data from previous research suggests around 3% of Georgia coyotes are black phase.

Some may think having a black coat affords coyotes an advantage when hunting prey, but we don’t know if black coyotes have greater success than do gray coyotes when hunting deer. Larger home ranges suggests that black coyotes use lower quality habitat than do gray coyotes, but both could exhibit similar killing rates of deer despite exhibiting different spatial needs. All this said, hunters can rest easy knowing that black coyotes aren’t likely a better predator of deer than their gray counterparts. They’re the same size, and both color morphs can occur in the same packs.

Other possible advantages of having a black coat include thermoregulation, protection against ultraviolet rays, or a genetic phenomenon known as “pleiotropy.” This means genetic mutation causing melanism could possibly influence the expression of other genes, leading to things like higher levels of reproductive activity, lower stress sensitivity, and possibly even higher rates of aggression, all ultimately affecting fitness and reproductive success. However, none of this has yet been proven. 

Know This About Black Coyotes 

The rarity of black coyotes is the primary reason for the sparse studies and information on them. To radio collar and study black coyotes, researchers will need to capture several hundred animals across extensive areas to acquire suitable sample sizes to address research questions. In the case of our research, we were able to acquire an adequate sample size from combining data sets from multiple studies conducted over several decades.

Given the sparse information on black coyotes, including our recent research, we don’t believe there is any evidence that black coyotes are more or less a threat to game populations than are gray coyotes. For now, research does indicate that black coyotes have greater survival rates and maintain larger home ranges than do their gray counterparts. That seems to be a trade-off of reduced hunting efficiency for improved survival for black animals. 

In any case, the increased survival of black coyotes indicates their use of dense canopy and other shadowy environments make them a challenging quarry for hunters. Beyond these behaviors, there is still much to learn.

About the Authors

Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy is a socioecologist and research associate at the nonprofit Wolf Conservation Center. She studied zoology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is currently pursuing a master’s in environmental policy and management through American Public University. Sunny has a special interest in the intersection of human activities and canid ecology, integrating aspects of her own life and culture into her work, such as spirituality and bowhunting. 

Dr. Joey Hinton is a wildlife ecologist and senior research scientist at the Wolf Conservation Center. A New Jersey native, he acquired his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. Joey’s research focuses on conservation and management of canids, specifically red wolves and coyotes.

About Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy and Dr. Joey Hinton: