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Meet the African Golden Wolf: New Canine Discovered After 150 Years

Aug 08, 2015 06:57 AM EDT
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Characteristic of the wile canines of oral tradition, jackals, it seems, had us tricked. Researchers have found what they are calling concrete evidence that a species of golden jackal living in Africa and Asia is actual two separate species - marking the first discovery of a new canine group in over 150 years.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Current Biology, which details how scientists have completed the most comprehensive genetic analyses of the golden jackal (Canus aureus) ever seen. The results, they say, show that the rare African variety is actually its own species closer related to the gray wolf and coyote than the jackal.

"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," Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement.

Klaus-Peter Koepfi, the study's co-first author added in an interview with Reuters that, in fact, his team found absolutely no sign of the actual golden jackal throughout Africa, showing that there is a possibility the species never inhabited those lands to begin with, despite their strikingly similar resemblance to the continent's golden wolf. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Stig Nygaard) Boasting a thicker skull, larger body, and stronger teeth than its Eurasian counterpart, the African golden jackal is remarkably wolf-life - an observation first made as early as 1880 by well-known evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley.

Still, it should be noted that both animals are still species of canid - a group that includes wolves, coyotes, and jackals. Thus, they do share a common ancestor - a lineage that led to the rise of gray wolves and coyotes, and one that the Eurasian golden jackal split away from 1.9 million years ago. The researchers determined that the African golden wolf split away from that same lineage some 600,000 years later.

"Our results showed that African and Eurasian golden jackals were distinct across all the genetic markers we tested, including data from whole genomes, suggesting these are independently evolving lineages," Koepfi added. "One of the main takeaways of our study is that even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity."

 Room for Doubt

And while Koepfi and his colleagues are celebrating the first 'discovery' of an unknown wolf variety in more than 150 years, not everyone is convinced.

Three years ago, biologist Philippe Gaubert, of the University of Montpellier in France, published a paper arguing that African golden jackals are simply a subspecies of their European cousins, despite "the problematic nature of this GenBank series of sequences" that scientists had been encountering. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Eyal Cohen) A Eurasian golden Jackal, as seen in Israel.

Commenting on this 2015 paper for National Geographic, Gaubert noted that the Koepfi team had actually intended to replicate his own genetic results, and yet came up with confusing and conflicting evidence. If anything, he said, this just goes to show how unclear DNA analysis continues to be, despite regular advances in the field.

In fact, Gaubert's own study had been something of a follow-up study as well, with results that contradicted the conclusions of another analysis of golden jackals conducted in 2011.

"A wolf in Africa is not only important conservation news, but raises fascinating biological questions about how the new African wolf evolved and lived alongside not only the real golden jackals but also the vanishingly rare Ethiopian wolf, which is a very different species with which the new discovery should not be confused," David Macdonald, an author of this earliest paper and Director of Oxford's WildCRU, added in a statement.

Koepfi and his colleagues, who remain confident in their results, have proposed that the African golden wolf, be renamed Canis anthus.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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