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The coyote was first scientifically described by Thomas Say, a naturalist, in September 1819 on the site of Lewis and Clark's Council Bluffs, 15 miles up the Missouri River from the mouth of the Platte during a government-sponsored expedition with Major Stephen Long.He had the first edition of the Lewis and Clark journals in hand, which contained Biddle's edited version of Lewis's observations dated May 5, 1805. The earliest written reference to the species comes from the naturalist Francisco Hernández's Plantas y Animales de la Nueva España (1651), where it is described as a "Spanish fox" or "jackal".In the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, the eastern coyote (a larger subspecies, though still smaller than wolves) is the result of various historical and recent matings with various types of wolves.Genetic studies show that most North American wolves contain some level of coyote DNA.
This species was encountered several times during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), though it was already well known to European traders on the upper Missouri.
The word's spelling was standardized as "coyote" by the 1880s. lepophagus was a similar in weight to modern coyotes, but had shorter limb bones that indicates a less cursorial lifestyle.
The coyote represents a more primitive form of Canis than the gray wolf, as shown by its relatively small size and its comparatively narrow skull and jaws, which lack the grasping power necessary to hold the large prey in which wolves specialize.
Lewis, writing on May 5, 1805, in northeastern Montana, described the coyote in these terms: the small woolf or burrowing dog of the prairies are the inhabitants almost invariably of the open plains; they usually ascociate in bands of ten or twelve sometimes more and burrow near some pass or place much frequented by game; not being able alone to take deer or goat they are rarely ever found alone but hunt in bands; they frequently watch and seize their prey near their burrows; in these burrows they raise their young and to them they also resort when pursued; when a person approaches them they frequently bark, their note being precisely that of the small dog. the hair and fur also resembles the fox tho' is much coarser and inferior. the eye of a deep sea green colour small and piercing.
they are of an intermediate size between that of the fox and dog, very active fleet and delicately formed; the ears large erect and pointed the head long and pointed more like that of the fox; tale long; . their tallons [claws] are reather longer than those of the ordinary wolf or that common to the atlantic states, none of which are to be found in this quarter, nor I believe above the river Plat.In early post-Columbian historical records, distinguishing between coyotes and wolves is often difficult.