Golden jackals of East Africa and Eurasia are two distinct species

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DNA evidence have suggested that though the ‘golden jackals’ of East Africa and Eurasia are remarkably similar in appearance, they are actually two distinct species.

Published in Cell Press journal Current Biology, the new study increases the overall biodiversity of the Canidae – the group that includes dogs, wolves, foxes and jackals. This discovery, which now increases the number of living special from 35 to 36, is the first in Africa in over 150 years.

The new study, led by Klaus-Peter Koepfli of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC and Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, was inspired by recent reports suggesting that the African golden jackal was actually a cryptic subspecies of gray wolf. Those studies were based on an analysis restricted to mitochondrial DNA, which is passed along via the maternal lineage.

For the study, researchers retrieved DNA samples of golden jackals collected two decades ago in Kenya. Koepfli and Wayne also established collaborations with colleagues, who provided them with samples from golden jackals in other parts of Africa and Eurasia. That genome-wide DNA evidence told a different story of the canids’ evolutionary past.

Researchers found that the small, golden-like jackal – now named the African golden wolf – 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.

Researchers believe that zoologists may have been mistaken the African and Eurasian golden jackals for the same species because of a high degree of similarity in their skull and tooth morphology. However analysis of their DNA supports the idea that they are in fact two separate lineages that have been evolving independently for at least a million years.

In fact, the new canid family tree suggests that these two lineages aren’t even closely related. The African species is more closely related to the lineage leading to gray wolves and coyotes than jackals, which explains their new designation as African golden wolves.

The findings come as a reminder that “even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity,” with the help of genomic evidence, Koepfli says. The researchers say they will continue to study the relationships among golden jackal and wolf lineages in Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East.