Is the Golden Jackal Really a Wolf?

Golden jackals (Canis aureus) are found throughout northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, southeastern Europe, and central, southern and western Asia. They exhibit a high degree of morphological variability across their range, with the Egyptian jackal (Canis aureus lupaster) being larger and longer limbed. Indeed, as far back as 1880 Thomas Huxley commented on the similarities between Egyptian jackals and the Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes).
egyptian_jackal
Figure 1. An Egyptian jackal or wolf. (From the University of Oxford)

The geographic distribution of the golden jackal overlaps that of the grey wolf, except in mainland Africa, where the grey wolf is absent. The only African wolf is the closely related Ethiopian wolf (
Canis simensis). Or at least that is the traditional view. In a paper published recently in PLoS One, researchers show that the rare Egyptian jackal from the horn of Africa is actually a wolf in jackal’s clothing (Rueness, et al. 2011).

The researchers used a 2055 base pair sequence of
mitochondrial DNA taken from highland golden jackal fecal samples and compared it with sequences from other wolf-like canids. Their results suggest that the larger Egyptian jackal is not a subspecies of golden jackal, but rather a subspecies of the grey wolf. The authors hypothesize that an ancestor of the Indian or Himalayan grey wolf migrated into Africa during the Pleistocene. According to this view, the Indian, Himalayan, and African wolf (formerly the Egyptian jackal) form an ancient wolf radiation that predated the radiation of the grey wolf into northern Europe and North America.
wolf_phylo
Figure 2. Phylogenetic tree (Maximum Likelihood) of wolf-like canids based on a segment of the Cyt b gene. Note that the Egyptian jackal is clustered within the grey wolf complex. (From Rueness et al., 2011)

Such a reclassification has important implications for canid conservation. As currently classified the Egyptian jackal receives no protection and, like other subspecies of golden jackals, it is persecuted over much of its range. If it is reclassified as the African wolf, it may merit a much higher level of protection.


References

Rueness, E.K., Asmyhr, M.G., Sillero-Zubiri, C., Macdonald, D.W., Bekele, A., Atickem, A., and N. Chr. Stenseth. (2011) The cryptic African wolf: Canis aureus lupaster is not a golden jackal and is not endemic to Egypt. PLoS ONE 6(1): e16385. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0016385

Huxley TH (1880) On the cranial and dental characters of the Canidae. Harvard University Press.