January 29, 2011

Egyptian Jackal Actually Wolf Family Member

Scientists have discovered that the Egyptian jackal, which was previously thought to be a subspecies of the golden jackal, is actually a relative of the grey wolf.

Genetic information shows that the species is more closely related to Indian and Himalayan wolves than golden jackals.

The researchers said that the renamed "African wolf" was the only grey wolf species found in Africa.

They also called for an urgent assessment of its conservation status.

There has been a long-running debate over whether the animal was a jackal or wolf.

The renowned evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley said in the late 19th Century that it looked suspiciously like grey wolves.

Other biologists made similar comments in the 20th Century after examining the skulls from specimens of the species.  However, the taxonomical classification remained unchanged.

The researchers explained why they decided to focus their attention on the species.

"During a field study of the Ethiopian wolf in central Ethiopia, we noticed that some golden jackals differed slightly in their appearance from golden jackals elsewhere," they wrote in Plos One.

They added that the dogs were "larger, more slender and sometimes with a more whitish coloration".

The team investigated the area's highlighted golden jackals and sequenced their DNA.

Co-author Claudio Sillero of the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), told BBC it was "really exciting" to find that what they thought was a member of a relatively common species could belong to a much more unique group.

He added: "What I understand from the genetic work carried out by our Norwegian colleagues is that the consistency of the results returned very strong [similarities to other subspecies of the grey wolf]."

"This is why we are very confident that we are looking at a different taxon."

Sillero told BBC that the next step would be in order to get the species formally reclassified.

"Traditionally, you would do a formal morphological description of the specimen. However, there is a possibility that we could describe the species on genetic material alone," he told BBC News.

"We stopped short of doing that on this paper because we wanted to get the feedback, and the response has been phenomenal among colleagues.

"Somewhere along the line, I think we will push for it to be recognized as a separate species."
The range of the grey wolf was known to extend to the Sinai Peninsula but not into mainland Africa.  It was originally thought that the closest living relative in the continent was the endangered Ethiopia wolf, which was thought to only be found in the Ethiopian highlands.
Sillero said that researchers found examples of the species at two highland locations, which extended the known range of the Egyptian Jackal by at least 1,500 miles south-east.

"This brings more questions than answers, such as how far into the heartland of Africa do they go?"

He added that he had recently received an "intriguing photograph" taken in northern Senegal.

"It was a picture of a wolf, there is no question about that, but we have never talked about wolves being present in Senegal before," he told BBC News.

"This wolf is hanging out with a family group of side-striped jackals. So this shows that there is complexity, not just in distribution but in sociality."


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