Generally speaking, there’s not a whole lot of love lost between wolves and coyotes. Footage taken by an ice fisherman in Canada that’s been making the social-media rounds is a case in point.

Ryan Thorburn was packing up after ice-fishing in Heyden, Ontario when he saw a coyote – that yippy, yappy “songdog” of North America – speeding across the snow with a silver-black wolf hot on its tail, and another (off-camera) in on the chase as well.

“They ran right past me,” Thorburn told MLive, “the one right in front of me you see in the video, then the second wolf behind me. The one behind me stopped and stared at me.”

In the clip posted by Thorburn, the coyote looks pretty much doomed, but it apparently got away.

“[The wolves] did get the pounce on the coyote,” MLive quotes Thorburn, “however, my snowmobile did scare them. The wolves then went one way and the coyote went another.”

The songdog, though, was a bit worse for wear: Thorburn said it was limping as it exited the scene.

The omnivorous coyote looks very much like an undersized, longer-tailed cousin of the (more wholly carnivorous) grey wolf: Early Euro-Americans often called it the “prairie wolf” or the “brush wolf” (as well as the “American jackal,” and indeed there’s a superficial resemblance to Old World jackals as well).

Western coyotes typically weigh roughly 11 to 16 kg (25 to 35 lbs), while eastern coyotes tend to be heftier, sometimes tipping the scales past 27 kg (60 lbs). Yet even the burliest coyote of the northeastern United States or southeastern Canada is a lightweight compared to most North American wolves; the grey wolf may weigh more than 68 kg (150 lbs), and is visibly bulkier and heavier-muzzled.

Wolves typically dominate coyotes; aggressive encounters between these two social canids seem to generally be more competitive and less predatory in nature. (Another large carnivore, the mountain lion or puma, does often actually prey upon coyotes, rather than simply kill them out of competitive ire; when numbers and situational context are in their favour, though, those spunky coyotes may also harass pumas.)

This spectacular standoff between two juvenile mountain lions and five coyotes was captured at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming in 2013. The mountain lions sought safety on a buck and rail fence for over an hour while the coyotes lurked in the background. Image © Lori Iverson / USFWS

How wolves impact coyote abundance and distribution has been a fruitful line of ecological inquiry in North America, not least after the high-profile reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the Middle Rocky Mountains of the U.S. Wolves had been absent from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for decades when they returned in the mid-1990s; the coyote population on Yellowstone’s Northern Range decreased by roughly half in the years following wolf reintroduction, though coyote numbers have since rebounded some.

A study assessing more than 300 wolf/coyote interactions in Yellowstone between 1995 (when wolves were first reintroduced) and 2007 found wolves dominated the majority of the run-ins, most of which happened over ungulate carcasses. Most of those encounters saw wolves simply running off coyotes; only 25 involved wolves actually killing coyotes. (Though, from the coyote’s perspective, we’ll admit that’s 25 too many.) On a relative handful of occasions, coyotes seemed to have the upper hand: Occasionally, when they outnumbered the wolves in question, they chased or otherwise needled their bigger cousin, including, in a few cases, around actively used coyote dens. 

A 2007 survey in the Greater Yellowstone suggested that coyote densities were lower where wolves were present, and that, while overall coyote mortality from wolf attacks was low, transient coyotes – those without an established territory – suffered a fair bit of predation by wolves, maybe because they were more likely to be roaming solo, or navigating unfamiliar terrain.

Wolves are a threat to coyotes, no question, but they can also be a boon by providing scavenge-able carcasses. Coyotes may even outright trail wolves in hopes of gleaning scraps.

A historical sidenote: One of the most famous of the so-called “outlaw wolves” that earned infamy in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the U.S. for eluding trappers and hunters and preying on livestock was the Custer Wolf of South Dakota. Over some nine years keeping one step ahead of his pursuers, this whitish wolf became an almost mythic figure, and part of his saga was, in the years after his mate was killed, his association with a pair of coyotes.

A 1920 U.S. Department of Agriculture press release announcing the Custer Wolf’s demise with the over-the-top headline of “World’s Greatest Animal Criminal Dead” (included in Rick McIntyre’s War Against the Wolf: America’s Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf) recorded this about the wolf’s coyote coterie: “Later on, [the Custer Wolf] attached to himself two coyotes, not as equals, but as servants. He never permitted them to come near him, and they could feed from his kills only after he himself had finished. They traveled far out on his flanks, giving him warning of ambush or approaching danger and added to the atmosphere of mystery that surrounded him.”

The government hunter who finally trapped the Custer Wolf – only after about some six months of focused pursuit – shot the coyotes while trying to get a jump on the wolf, hoping to take away the “renegade’s” advance warning system.

Coyotes – smart, adaptable, opportunistic – have dramatically expanded their range in the past couple of centuries. The exact “pre-settlement” domain of the species isn’t completely clear, but evidence suggests the songdog was mainly a canid of North America’s central and western interior. By 1900 or so, however, coyotes had spread significantly in all directions; nowadays, they’re found across nearly all of the U.S. and Canada. (They’ve also penetrated southward down the isthmus of Central America, and at this point appear to be knocking on the northern door of South America.)

A long-running theory suggests that the eradication of the wolf from a goodly chunk of temperate North America opened up a niche for the smaller coyote and facilitated its impressive expansion. Along the way, in the Upper Midwest and Northeast of the U.S. and southeastern Canada, evidence suggests the coyote may have cross-bred with remnant wolves – perhaps domestic dogs as well– to produce the so-called eastern coyote. (We won’t go into the complicated, fascinating inquiry into Canis genetics in North America, which appear to involve the Eurasian-derived grey wolf and various New World-evolved canids, the coyote, the red wolf, and the “eastern wolf” among them, including potential hybrids.)

Not everybody buys the idea that the disappearance of wolves (and maybe eastern pumas, too) especially opened a door for coyotes; other potential explanations include the broad-scale alteration of landscapes in eastern North America by humankind, with forests cleared for agriculture and development. (Not that those land-use alterations aren’t unrelated to the persecution of bigger carnivores.)

Because coyotes may competitively hamper or prey on red foxes, meanwhile, wolf presence – by, potentially, lowering coyote density – may help out the dainty little fox, which (so to speak) draws somewhat less fire from the much bigger wolf.

This kind of canid-on-canid drama is by no means restricted to North America. Wolves kill golden jackals in Iran and periodically square off against dholes in South Asia; painted dogs in sub-Saharan Africa may kill (and spatially exclude) black-backed jackals, which in turn kill Cape and bat-eared foxes; in Australia, dingoes may help limit the red fox – an ecologically destructive exotic species Down Under.

The “it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there” reference just about makes itself, needless to say. So good luck to that limping, wolf-harried Ontario coyote: a songdog living to sing another day, against some steep odds.

Header image: Tambako The Jaguar