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Canis rufus Audubon and Bachman 1851

Order Carnivora : Family Canidae

DESCRIPTION. A small, slender, long-legged wolf similar to the coyote but typically larger, with wider nose pad, larger feet, and coarser pelage; smaller and more tawny than the gray wolf. Dental formula: I 3/3, C 1/1, Pm 4/4, M 2/3 × 2 = 42. External measurements of an adult male: total length, 1.5 m; tail, 362 mm; hind foot, 235 mm; of a female, 1.4 m-355 mm-216 mm. Weight of large males, 30–40 kg; of large females, 20–30 kg. 

Canis rufus

Canis rufus Face

DISTRIBUTION. Formerly, red wolves ranged throughout the eastern half of Texas, but their numbers and range quickly declined due to intensive land use and human presence in the region. Also, early lumbering and farming practices allowed the coyote to expand its range into East Texas; hybrid offspring of interbreeding red wolves and coyotes more closely resembled coyotes, and the genetic identity of the red wolf was gradually suppressed.

The last pure group of the eastern subspecies of red wolf, found along the Gulf Coast south of Houston, seems to have been genetically swamped by 1970. The central Texas subspecies of red wolf survived for a few more years in extreme southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana, but it subsequently disappeared in the wild.

We still get inquiries from Texas citizens who claim to be in possession of or to have seen a red wolf. The comparisons in table 3, derived mainly from a review of the status and knowledge of the red wolf prepared by Glynn A. Riley and Roy T. McBride (US Fish and Wildlife Service), are useful in distinguishing coyotes from red wolves. To date, none of the reports or specimens have proven to be a red wolf.

Distribution of Canis rufus

SUBSPECIES. Canis r. gregoryi along the eastern border of the state and C r. rufus in the remainder of the range in Texas.

HABITS. Red wolves inhabited brushy and forested areas, as well as the coastal prairies. They are more sociable than coyotes. Three or more may maintain a group structure throughout the year. Riley and McBride, on the basis of systematic tracking, estimated that the home range is approximately 40–80 km2 (15–30 mi.2), averaging 56 km2 (22 mi.2).

They are known to feed on cottontails and other rabbits, deer, native rats and mice, prairie chickens, fish and crabs (along the Gulf Coast), and feral pigs, as well as on domestic livestock. Riley and McBride list nutria (which they consider an important buffer between red wolves and domestic livestock), swamp rabbit, cottontail, rice rat, cotton rat, and muskrat as specific food items.

Breeding occurs in January and February, and the three or four pups are born in March and April. The nursery den normally is dug in the slope or crest of a low, sandy mound or hill or in the bank of an irrigation or drainage ditch. Fabricated culverts and drainpipes occasionally are utilized. The dens average about 2.4 m in length and normally are no deeper than 1 m. Den entrances vary from 60–75 cm in diameter and normally are well concealed. Both sexes take part in rearing the young. Frequently, young of the previous year occur in the vicinity of a nursery den, but they do not appear to participate in guarding, feeding, or training of the pups of the year. When about 6 weeks old the pups may leave the nursery den.

POPULATION STATUS. Extinct. Red wolves are extinct in the wild in Texas. They once were common along the Texas Gulf Coast, but encroaching human population and hybridization with coyotes led to their rapid demise. Because of the large density of people on the upper Texas Coast, it is doubtful if reintroductions of red wolves could ever be successful in Texas.

TABLE 3.  Comparison of traits between red wolves and coyotes.

Mean weight (kg)

(extremes in parentheses)

22.7 (17.3-34.5) Male

20.0 (16.3-24.5) Female

15.0 (10.0-16.0) Male

13.1 (9.5-15.9) Female

Total length (m)

1.42 (1.32-1.60) Male

1.34 (1.22-1.42) Female

1.27 (1.21-1.35) Male

1.20 (1.12-1.30) Female

 Hind foot (cm)

 23.1 (21.0-24.9) Male

22.1 (20.3-24.1) Female

 20.5 (19.0-21.3) Male

19.8 (17.8-21.6) Female

 Ear length (cm)

 12.7 (11.4-14.0) Male

12.2 (11.4-12.7) Female

 11.6 (10.7-12.2) Male

10.9 (8.6-12.2) Female

 Width of nose pad (mm)  >25  <25
 Length of skull (mm)  >215; usually >220  <215; usually <210

 Tracks (mm, from back of

heel pad to end of longest


 102.0 (89.0-127.0)  66.0 (57.2-72.4)
 Stride (cm)  65.8 (55.8-76.2)  41.4 (32.4-48.3)
 Muzzle and head  Normally broad  Normally narrow
 Muzzle coloration

 White area around lips may

extend well up on sides of


 White area around lips

thin and sharply


 Threat behavior (when

trapped or cornered)

 Tail held upright; snarl

exposes only the canines

and a few front teeth; ruff

on neck and back raised

 Tail held between legs;

mouth opened wide and

all teeth exposed; back

arched and ruff may or

may not be raised


CONSERVATION STATUS. The IUCN lists the red wolf as critically endangered but increasing in numbers; it is listed as endangered by both TPWD and USFWS. Before the complete spread of the hybridization process with coyotes, a few dozen pure red wolves were brought into captivity. Using the progeny of this captive stock, translocations back into native range in North Carolina began in 1987, when red wolves were released onto the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Red wolves also have been released in the Great Smoky Mountains and on Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The current free-ranging red wolf population consists of approximately 100 wolves roaming over approximately 404,685 ha (1 million acres); another 100 individuals or so are maintained in a captive breeding program. It was understood from the beginning of the project that one of the key issues that would determine the success of the introductions would be limiting hybridization with coyotes. Recent studies in North Carolina are finding hybrid individuals, and an intensive effort currently is underway to reduce red wolf–coyote hybridization on the Alligator River Refuge and in the surrounding areas.

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From The Mammals of Texas, Seventh Edition by David J. Schmidly and Robert D. Bradley, copyright © 1994, 2004, 2016.  Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

Natural Science Research Laboratory