For a long time, zoologist thought that the differences between the African and Eurasian version of a golden jackal were minimal, enough to classify them both as jackals. In truth, the two animals are much alike; the only differences being a smaller size, skull and weaker teeth on part of the former.
But a new study published in Current Biology shows that the two similarly looking animals are actually quite different when it comes to genetic composition and heritage. The question was first posed in 2012, as a study from biologist Phillipe Gaubert of the University of Montpellier claimed that African Golden Jackals were actually a wolf subspecies. This prompted Klaus-Peter Koepfli, a biologist from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, to investigate the matter further and by sampling a bigger number of golden jackals from a larger area.
The result showed Koepfli that Gaubert was only half right: the African Golden Jackal is indeed quite different to its Eurasian counterpart, but it also isn’t a gray wolf subspecies. Instead, he concluded that the animal was a different subspecies of wolf, making it the first new canine species discovered in the last century and a half. It would also be only the third wolf species in Africa, after the gray wolf and Ethiopian wolf.
“Consistent with two previous studies also based on mitochondrial sequences, we find that golden jackals from Africa and Eurasia are not each other’s closest relative as we would expect if they were the same species”, he said.
The African Golden Jackal, which will be reclassified as the African Golden Wolf should the results prove accurate, differs a lot in DNA structure and also has a different genealogy than the Eurasian Golden Jackal. Apparently, the species became distinct from gray wolves and coyotes about 1.3 million years ago, with the diversion between the two branches happening 600,000 years earlier. The African Golden Jackal/Wolf is approximately 6.7 different from the Eurasian Golden Jackal when it comes to mitochondrial DNA.
Questions however still remain regarding the extremely similar appearance of the two subspecies, and what relation is there exactly between them if they evolved quite differently. Gaubert has acknowledged and praised the new research, but reaffirmed his original theory due to inconsistencies in the DNA studies. He did however admit that Koepfli’s research puts his own work in a better position and offers him more avenues to explore.
Image Source: genomeweb