They’re hard to tell apart unless you look at their genes, but the golden jackals of Africa and those of Eurasia are two completely different species. In fact, the African animal is actually more closely related to wolves and coyotes.
"This represents the first discovery of a 'new' canid species in Africa in over 150 years," Klaus-Peter Koepfli from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute says in a statement. The Canidae order includes dogs, wolves, foxes, and jackals. The discovery, published in Current Biology this week, ups the world’s canid count from 35 to 36.
Recent studies using mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on from moms, have suggested that the African golden jackal is a subspecies of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. This is pretty surprising, especially since there are no gray wolves in Africa. So to investigate using genome-wide evidence, Koepfli and colleagues gathered up frozen DNA samples of golden jackals collected two decades ago in Kenya and samples from other parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
"To our surprise, the small, golden-like jackal from eastern Africa was actually a small variety of a new species, distinct from the gray wolf, that has a distribution across North and East Africa," study coauthor Robert Wayne of UCLA says. They named it the African golden wolf, Canis anthus (pictured above). The Eurasian golden jackals remain Canis aureus (pictured below). Based on the genomic data, the two lineages have been evolving independently for at least a million years; the African golden wolf diverged from wolves and coyotes more recently.
The mix-up probably happened because the two species have very similarly shaped skulls and teeth since they eat similar prey in similar habitats – an example of what’s called parallelism. The golden wolves may have donned the jackals’ clothing and omnivorous lifestyle, Science News explains, because of the intense competition among different carnivore species in East Africa.
A golden jackal (Canis aureus) from Israel. Eyal Cohen.