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The jackal that turned into a wolf: new species discovered in Africa

  • The African golden wolf is physically similar to the Eurasian golden jackal, but is genetically distinct.
  • Golden wolves diverged from golden jackals more than a million years ago.
  • The new wolf is the first canid species discovered in Africa in 150 years.

There’s another wolf in the world, according to results published yesterday in Current Biology. The discovery of the species, called the African golden wolf (Canis anthus), effectively increases the number of living canid species from 35 to 36.

Golden wolves were previously lumped with golden jackals (C. aureus), which are widespread through the northern half of Africa and into parts of Eurasia. But genetic analyses found that populations in Africa are quite distinct from Eurasian golden jackals, and have much more in common with gray wolves (C. lupus) and coyotes (C. latrans).

“This represents the first discovery of a ‘new’ canid species in Africa in over 150 years,” says Klaus-Peter Koepfli of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC. Koepfli led the study along with Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles.

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 by Eyal Cohen.

Despite their genetic differences, golden wolves look like jackals, and even their teeth and skulls are similar. Koepfli and Wayne believe this is why the two species were confused for so long.

However, previous studies that looked at relatively small segments of DNA suggested that these African canids might be more related to gray wolves than golden jackals. Indeed, when Koepfli, Wayne, and their colleagues analyzed their entire genomes and compared them to Eurasian golden jackals, gray wolves, and coyotes, they found that golden jackals and the now-golden wolves have been evolving separately for at least a million years.

While the golden wolf bears more genetic similarities to the gray wolf, it is distinct enough to merit its own species.

“To our surprise, the small, golden-like jackal from eastern African was actually a small variety of a new species, distinct from the gray wolf, that has a distribution across North and East Africa,” Wayne says.

Both golden jackals and golden wolves are more omnivorous than gray wolves, the authors write, illustrating an uncommon evolution trajectory for canids that they speculate may have come about through competition with other big carnivores. The researchers plan on further studying the evolutionary relationships between golden jackals and wolves in Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

According to Koepfli, “even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity.”