Africa has a new, old wolf. An animal that was previously called a subspecies of the golden jackal in Egypt has now been found to be a very rare relict species hiding in plain sight — an ancient gray wolf line still living today.
A new study published today in PLoS-ONE offers a heavy-weight genetic analysis of golden jackals in Africa, India, Israel and Serbia compared to gray wolves from all over the world. In the paper titled “The Cryptic African Wolf: Canis aureus lupaster Is Not a Golden Jackal and Is Not Endemic to Egypt” the authors conclude that Africa has its very own gray wolf — and it’s ancient. Claudio Sirello, the chair of the IUCN’s Canid Specialist Group and a professor in the zoology department of Oxford University, is a co-author to the paper.
The study found that the subspecies of golden jackal found in Egypt, Canis aureus lupaster, is more closely related to gray wolves of India (Canis lupus pallipes) and the Himalayas (Canis lupus chanco) than it is to other golden jackals found in India, Israel and Serbia. They also presented evidence that the animal known as a golden jackal in Egypt is also present in the highlands of Ethiopia — a 2,500 kilometer range expansion southeasterly.
The new evidence, based on an mtDNA analysis, suggests that the African gray wolf (formerly known as C. a. lupaster) belongs to an ancient group of gray wolves that clusters most closely with gray wolves of India and the Himalayas, and that this group formed prior to the radiation of gray wolves that comprised the Holarctic group we know today from Sweden, Japan, North America, and Saudi Arabia.
In the phylogenetic tree below, from the PLoS paper, the light gray box denotes the ancient gray wolf clade the study authors assert that C. a. lupaster belongs to, and the dark gray box denotes the Holarctic gray wolf clade. You can also see how distantly related the Ethiopian wolf is.
While the Egyptian jackal was noted by the IUCN to be a species of least concern, a taxonomic revision to the gray wolf family — and an ancient part of the family — would likely catapult it to one of the “threatened” categories given its relative scarcity.
Eli Knispel Rueness, Maria Gulbrandsen Asmyhr, Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, David W. Macdonald, Afework Bekele, Anagaw Atickem, Nils Chr. Stenseth (2011). The Cryptic African Wolf: Canis aureus lupaster Is Not a Golden Jackal and Is Not Endemic to Egypt
PLoS ONE, 6 (1) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0016385