’Golden jackals’ of East Africa are actually golden wolves, biologists report

D. Gordon E. Robertson

A golden jackal from Tanzania. Researchers suggest this animal be known as the African golden wolf.

Although they look very similar, the “golden jackals” of East Africa and those of Eurasia are two entirely different species, life scientists reported today in the journal Current Biology.

The discovery, which is based on DNA evidence, increases the diversity of the biological family 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 more than 150 years,” said Klaus-Peter Koepfli, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar who is now at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.

The new study, led by Koepfli and senior author Robert Wayne, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College, was inspired by recent reports suggesting that the African golden jackal was actually a subspecies of gray wolf. Those studies were based on an analysis restricted to mitochondrial DNA.

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 from universities worldwide — including from Russia, China, Portugal, South Africa, Finland and Israel — who provided them with samples from golden jackals in other parts of Africa and Eurasia. The DNA comparisons told a different story of the animals’ evolutionary past.

“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,” Wayne said.

The researchers have named this previously unrecognized 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 support the idea that they are two separate lineages that have been evolving independently for at least a million years.

In fact, the evidence suggests these two lineages aren’t even closely related. The African species is more closely related to the lineage leading to gray wolves and coyotes than jackals.

The researchers will continue to study the relationships among golden jackal and wolf lineages in Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East.

Among the study ' s co-authors are Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and John Pollinger, former director of UCLA's Conservation Genetics Resource Center.

Funding sources for the research include the Russian Ministry of Science, the National Geographic Society, CIBIO and the National Science Foundation.