During a field expedition to Ethiopia, a team of scientists noticed something odd: The golden jackals there looked more slender with a whiter coat than they do elsewhere. Now, genetic analyses suggest these oddities are not jackals at all but instead more closely related to gray wolves.
In fact, until now these "highland jackals" were referred to as Egyptian jackals (Canis aureus lupaster), and had long been considered a rare subspecies to the golden jackal (C. aureus).
With new genetic evidence in hand, the team suggested the animal be called the African wolf to reflect its true identity.
"It seems as if the Egyptian jackal is urgently set for a name change," said study researcher Claudio Sillero of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). "And its unique status as the only member of the gray wolf complex in Africa suggests that it should be re-named 'the African wolf,'" said Sillero, who has worked in Ethiopia for more than two decades.
(The gray wolf population extends to the Sinai Peninsula but doesn't exist on mainland Africa.)
"We originally set out to study the jackals in Northern Ethiopia, and discovered this new species by chance through the genetic analyses," said study team member Nils Christian Stenseth, a research professor and chairman of the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Stenseth, Sillero and their colleagues, including scientists from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, analyzed the DNA from the feces of five individuals of the mysterious animal, one of which they had filmed defecating so they could link for certain this creature with its DNA sample. They got another tissue sample, for DNA analysis, from a road kill in Arsi in southeast Ethiopia. And DNA samples were also obtained from golden jackals in Serbia.
The DNA comparisons showed C. a. lupaster is more similar to the gray wolves than to golden jackals.
The work also suggested gray wolves reached Africa around 3 million years ago before spreading throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
"Our findings suggest that the colonization of Africa by the ancestral stock of gray wolves took place about 3 million years ago and is today embodied in the animal that has hitherto been called the Egyptian jackal," Stenseth told LiveScience.