Science & Environment

Study shows canid is 'wolf in jackal's clothing'

Image of what is believed to be an African wolf (Image: Jugal Tiwari/ WildCRU)
The taxonomic classification of the species has long been the subject of an ongoing debate

DNA analysis has shown that the Egyptian jackal, previously believed to be a subspecies of the golden jackal, is a relative of the grey wolf.

Genetic information shows that the species, Canis aureus lupaster, is more closely related to Indian and Himalayan wolves than golden jackals.

Writing in Plos One, researchers said the renamed "African wolf" was the only grey wolf species found in Africa.

They also called for an urgent assessment of its conservation status.

There has been a long-running debate over whether the animal was a jackal or wolf.

In the late 19th Century, the renowned evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley said that it looked suspiciously like grey wolves (Canis lupus).

In the 20th Century, other biologists made similar comments after examining skulls from specimens of the species. However, the taxonomical classification remained unchanged.

The team of researchers from Norway, Ethiopia and the UK explained why they decided to focus their attention on the species.

"During a field study of the Ethiopian wolf in central Ethiopia, we noticed that some golden jackals differed slightly in their appearance from golden jackals elsewhere," they wrote.

They added that the canids were "larger, more slender and sometimes with a more whitish colouration".

This, combined with a photograph taken in 2004 in Eritrea that showed a "wolf-like animal" which was suggested to be an Egyptian jackal, prompted the team to investigate the area's highland golden jackals and sequence their DNA.

Exciting find

Co-author Claudio Sillero, from the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), said it was "really exciting" to find that what they thought was a member of a relatively common species, only to find out that the animal could belong to a much more surprising grouping.

Arabian wolf (Canis lupus arabs) (Image: Chris and Matilde Stuart)
The Arabian wolf is believed to be the closest relative - geographically and genetically - to the African wolf

He added: "What I understand from the genetic work carried out by our Norwegian colleagues is that the consistency of the results returned very strong [similarities to other subspecies of the grey wolf].

"This is why we are very confident that we are looking at a different taxon."

Professor Sillero explained what the next step would be in order to get the species formally reclassified.

"Traditionally, you would do a formal morphological description of the specimen. However, there is a possibility that we could describe the species on genetic material alone," he told BBC News.

"We stopped short of doing that on this paper because we wanted to get the feedback, and the response has been phenomenal among colleagues.

"Somewhere along the line, I think we will push for it to be recognised as a separate species."

Until now, the range of the grey wolf was known to extend to the Sinai Peninsula but not into mainland Africa. It was presumed that the closest living relative in the continent was the endangered Ethiopia wolf (Canis simensis), found only in the Ethiopian highlands.

Professor Sillero, who is also chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's canid specialist group, explained that researchers found examples of the species at two highland locations, which extended the known range of Canis aureus lupaster by at least 2,500km south-east.

"This brings more questions than answers, such as how far into the heartland of Africa do they go?"

He added that he had recently received an "intriguing photograph" taken in northern Senegal.

"It was a picture of a wolf, there is no question about that, but we have never talked about wolves being present in Senegal before," he told BBC News.

"This wolf is hanging out with a family group of side-striped jackals. So this shows that there is complexity, not just in distribution but in sociality."

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