Coyote-Wolf Hybrids and Mitochondrial DNA
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Coyote-Wolf Hybrids and Mitochondrial DNA

Due to human influences, the coyote and wolf populations in North America were forced to interact more. This has led to a hybridization between the two species, which was discovered through the use of mitochondrial DNA.

The Decline of the Wolves and the Rise of the Coyotes

North America is the home of two wild canid species, the gray wolf (canis lupus) and the coyote (canis latrans). A long time ago, before European settlement, gray wolves occupied a large range across North America, living in forests, plains, desert and tundra habitats. Coyotes, on the other hand, lived in a rather limited habitat, confined to plains and deserts.

In the 18th and 19th century, European settlements expanded and agriculture developed, changing the distribution of the two canid species. Due to habitat destruction and hunting the wolf populations declined dramatically. The coyote populations, however, increases noticeably, probably as a result of the decreasing competition with wolves. Today, coyotes can be found across most of North America.

Increasing Wolf-Coyote Interactions

These changes in habitat en distribution have led to an increase in interactions between wolves and coyotes, which provides more opportunities for hybridization between the two species. In captivity, the two species have been known to interbreed and produce fertile descendants. The large coyotes in New England and southeastern Canada may be the result of interbreeding between wolves and coyotes.

Mitochondrial DNA

To test this assumption, the mitochondrial DNA of wolves and coyotes was studied. This mtDNA can be useful to test for hybridization for two reasons:

  • It is only inherited from the mother, and
  • It evolves rapidly.

Blood and tissue samples were gathered from over 500 wolves and coyotes. The mtDNA was extracted and restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) were analyzed.

The Results: Some Hybridization

The results showed two large clusters of mtDNA among the canids:

  • One consisting of wolf mtDNA, and
  • One consisting of coyote-like mtDNA.

Remarkably, the coyote-like DNA contained several samples that have been obtained from wolves, meaning that some wolves possessed coyote-like DNA.

This means that a unidirectional hybridization has taken place. Coyote DNA has entered wolf populations (mostly on the U.S. border with Canada), but no wolf DNA has entered coyote populations. The fact that mtDNA is only inherited from females, implies that female coyotes are mating successfully with male wolves and the resulting hybrids are mating in the wolf populations, introducing coyote genes in the wolf populations.


  • Lehman, N., A. Eisenhawer, K. Hansen, L. D. Mech, R. O. Peterson, P. J. P. Gogan, and R. K. Wayne. (1991). Introgression of coyote mitochondrial DNA into sympatric North American gray wolf population. Evolution 45:104–119.
  • Project Coyote: Eastern Coyote: Coyote, Wolf or Hybrid? (
  • Reich, D.E.; Wayne, R.K. & Goldstein, D.B. (1999). Genetic evidence for a recent origin by hybridization of red wolves. Molecular Ecology 8:139 – 144.

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