Wolves in jackals’ clothing

An African species long assumed to be a jackal is actually a wolf, DNA evidence suggests

golden wolf and jackal

SEEING DOUBLE  Although they look alike, the African golden wolf (left) should be considered a separate species from the Eurasian golden jackal (right), scientists argue.

From left: D. Gordon, E. Robertson; Eyal Cohen

Some canids in Africa could bristle at being called jackals. Using DNA evidence, scientists have built a case that African golden jackals deserve a name change.

Canids known as golden jackals (Canis aureus) roam Eurasia and Africa. The African and Eurasian animals closely resemble each other, but their looks are deceiving. The two are actually separate species, Klaus-Peter Koepfli of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. and colleagues discovered after analyzing DNA collected from jackals, wolves and other related canid species. The African species should be renamed African golden wolves (Canis anthus), researchers report online July 30 in Current Biology.

African golden wolves are more closely related to gray wolves and coyotes than they are to jackals, the team found.

Golden wolves may have adopted their jackal-like appearance and omnivorous lifestyle thanks to intense competition among carnivores both bigger and smaller than jackals, the researchers speculate. It is unusual for a big canid like a wolf to evolve into a smaller species, the way African golden wolves seem to have, the scientists say.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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