Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, the coyote that we know today was a much more fearsome canine. At least he was if you were a baby buffalo or wild horse living in the plains of North America. The coyote is a native to these lands, and we are able to look at fossils from thousands of years ago to see the actual evolution of the modern day coyote from this ancient relatives. The most noticeable difference in the fossil structure of coyotes from past and today is the mouth of the coyote.
In the distant past, the coyote had much larger teeth and jaw bones than the coyotes of today. One reason for this is that their prey at the time were much larger animals like bison, llamas, and horses. They needed these strong and sharp teeth to be able to take these animals down. Jaw bones taken from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles have shown that the coyotes from the past were more carnivorous and were less likely to have plant matter be a part of their diet like today’s coyotes. A study by Julie Meachen, a professor at Des Moines University, has studied these coyote jaw bones and teeth and places them between 7,000 to 10,000 years old.
As the climate changed and animal species died off, the coyote also began to change and evolve. When larger prey were less and less available over hundreds of years, the coyote adapted to these changes by hunting smaller prey like rabbits or mice. The need for thick sharp teeth was not as necessary as previously. Coyotes also starting introducing fruits and vegetables into their diet, and they had a need for teeth that would help them chew this new food.
Today coyotes are recognized by their longer pointy muzzle which helps distinguish them from their wolf cousins and even domestic dogs. The coyote skull is particularly small in size compared to their relatives and how they appear when covered in fur. Coyote jaws are approximately 5.5 inches when fully grown, depending on the size of the coyote, and their teeth line is approximately 4 inches in length. The coyote’s jaw is very narrow, particularly the lower jaw. Today’s coyotes are omnivores, unlike the more carnivorous coyotes of the past, and need teeth that allows them to catch and kill living prey as well as chew nuts and berries.
Like all canids, coyotes have four canine teeth that they use to lock onto prey. Coyotes are known for having very strong jaws for their size and can inflict serious damage on small, medium, and even large animals when working in packs. Coyote pups get their permanent teeth and canines in when they are approximately 4 to 5 months old. Because they now have their teeth and can start using the power of their jaws, the coyote mother will start taking them hunting and they will participate in pack hunts.
Coyotes also have thinner jaw and facial bones than dogs and wolves do, which makes their skull much lighter. Also, the teeth line in coyotes almost always follows a straight line back, which keeps their snout so narrow. There is a benefit of having a narrow muzzle and mouth for the coyote, who often scavenges for their food. The coyote has the ability to get into very narrow and tight spots and crevices to dig up small prey like bugs or even pull certain animals out of their dens. They can grab birds out of nests, lizards out of holes and snatch up fish out of water using their sharp top and bottom canines. The coyote’s thinner bones and elongated snout allow him to have a more sensitive mouth than most canids. They are able to use this sensitivity to pick apart their smaller prey, remove unwanted pests from their coat, or gently move their young.
One of the best and most accurate ways to tell the age of a coyote is by looking at their teeth. Using a cementum analysis is how many scientists and biologists determine the age of a coyote or skull. To perform the cementum analysis a coyote tooth, usually the coyote’s incisor, will need to be removed and sent to a lab for review and analysis. The process looks at the layers of the coyote’s teeth that begin forming around 20 months of age. A new layer of cementum is formed and added every year after that. This is the most accurate way to determine ages of coyotes when wanting to implement management programs for coyotes in your area.