Named the African golden wolf, the discovery increases the overall biodiversity of the Canidae family from 35 living species to 36.
What lurks in the DNA of East Africa’s golden jackal? Researchers took a look and discovered that in fact, although it looks remarkably similar to the Eurasian golden jackal, the African golden jackal isn’t a jackal at all.
Inspired by reports that the African animal was actually a cryptic subspecies of gray wolf, a new study was hatched by Klaus-Peter Koepfli of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles.
To further explore the DNA evidence in the new study, they relied on frozen DNA samples of golden jackals from Kenya as well as samples from golden jackals in other parts of Africa and Eurasia. From all of the DNA evidence they collected, a different story of the canids' evolutionary past emerged.
"To our surprise, the small, golden-like jackal from eastern African was actually a small variety of a new species, distinct from the gray wolf, that has a distribution across North and East Africa," Wayne says. They named the newly recognized species the African golden wolf, bringing the overall biodiversity of the Canidae family (which includes dogs, wolves, foxes, and jackals) from 35 living species to 36.
"This represents the first discovery of a 'new' canid species in Africa in over 150 years," says Koepfli.
The researchers think that earlier zoologists had mistaken African and Eurasian golden jackals for the same species because of the close similarity in their skull and tooth shape. But the genetic data suggests that the two separate lineages have actually been evolving independently for at least a million years – so much so that they aren’t even closely related. The African species is more closely linked to gray wolves and coyotes than jackals.
Koepfli says that the discovery is a good reminder that, "even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity."