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Golden jack­als’ of East Africa are actu­ally ‘golden wolves’

pub­lished 01 August 2015 | mod­i­fied 01 August 2015

Despite their remark­ably sim­i­lar appear­ance, the “golden jack­als” of East Africa and Eura­sia are actu­ally two entirely dif­fer­ent species. The dis­cov­ery, based on DNA evi­dence and pub­lished online on 30 July the Cell Press jour­nal Cur­rent Biol­ogy, increases the over­all bio­di­ver­sity of the Canidae — the group includ­ing dogs, wolves, foxes, and jack­als — from 35 liv­ing species to 36.

This rep­re­sents the first dis­cov­ery of a ‘new’ canid species in Africa in over 150 years
Klaus-​Peter Koepfli, lead author, Smith­son­ian Con­ser­va­tion Biol­ogy Insti­tute, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., USA »

The new study, led by Koepfli and Robert Wayne of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les, was inspired by recent reports sug­gest­ing that the African golden jackal was actu­ally a cryp­tic sub­species of grey wolf. Those stud­ies were based on an analy­sis restricted to mito­chon­dr­ial DNA, which is passed along via the mater­nal lineage.

Golden jackal from East Africa (Canis anthus) or African golden wolfA golden jackal (Canis anthus) from Serengeti National Park, Tan­za­nia. Based on genomic results, the researchers sug­gest this ani­mal be referred to as the African golden wolf, which is dis­tinct from the Eurasian golden jackal (Canis aureus). Photo credit D. Gor­don E. Robertson

Eurasian golden jackal (Canis aureus)A golden jackal (Canis aureus) from Israel. Based on genomic results, the researchers sug­gest this ani­mal, the Eurasian golden jackal, is dis­tinct from Canis anthus, which they pro­pose be referred to as the African golden wolf. Photo credit Eyal Cohen
To expand the DNA evi­dence in the new study, Wayne retrieved DNA sam­ples of golden jack­als col­lected two decades ago in Kenya from his lab­o­ra­tory freez­ers. Koepfli and Wayne also estab­lished col­lab­o­ra­tions with col­leagues, who pro­vided them with sam­ples from golden jack­als in other parts of Africa and Eura­sia. That genome-​wide DNA evi­dence told a dif­fer­ent story of the canids’ evo­lu­tion­ary past.

To our sur­prise, the small, golden-​like jackal from east­ern African was actu­ally a small vari­ety of a new species, dis­tinct from the grey wolf, that has a dis­tri­b­u­tion across North and East Africa,” Wayne says. The researchers have named this pre­vi­ously unrecog­nised species the African golden wolf.

Koepfli and Wayne sus­pect that zool­o­gists had mis­taken African and Eurasian golden jack­als for the same species because of a high degree of sim­i­lar­ity in their skull and tooth mor­phol­ogy. How­ever, the genetic data sup­ports the idea that they are in fact two sep­a­rate lin­eages that have been evolv­ing inde­pen­dently for at least a mil­lion years. In fact, the new canid fam­ily tree sug­gests that these two lin­eages aren’t even closely related. The African species is more closely related to the lin­eage lead­ing to grey wolves and coy­otes than jack­als, which explains their new des­ig­na­tion as African golden wolves.

The find­ings come as a reminder that “even among well-​known and wide­spread species such as golden jack­als, there is the poten­tial to dis­cover hid­den bio­di­ver­sity,” with the help of genomic evi­dence, Koepfli says. The researchers say they will con­tinue to study the rela­tion­ships among golden jackal and wolf lin­eages in Africa, Eura­sia, and the Mid­dle East.

(Source: Cell Press pub­lic release via EurekAlert!, 30.07.2015)

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