A new study conducted by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has found that a species of jackal endemic to Africa and Eurasia is in fact a separate species of wolf.

Klaus-Peter Koepfli, a biologist at the SCBI and lead author of the study, said that what was once considered the golden jackal actually consists of two separate and distinct species-one of these has been named the African golden wolf.

The newly-discovered canid species, an animal group that includes jackals, coyotes and wolves, is the first of its kind to be found in 150 years. Other species of wolves native to the African continent include the Ethiopian and gray wolf.

While golden jackals look almost identical to each other-with the Eurasian natives having a narrower skull and slightly smaller body compared to their African counterparts-an extensive analysis of the animals' DNA has revealed two distinct species that have separately evolved from each other for thousands of years.

Koepfli suggests that the new species should be given the name African golden wolf (Canis anthus) and the other species should retain the original name of Eurasian golden jackal (C. aureus).

Identifying the Species

In 2012, French biologist Philippe Gaubert at the University of Montpellier released the findings of his study that suggested that the African golden jackals could possibly be a subspecies of the gray wolf, which is distinct from the Eurasian species.

Gaubert analyzed samples of mitochondrial DNA of jackals, which is passed on by mother jackals to their offspring.

Koepfli discovered Gaubert's findings and he and his colleagues decided to verify them using additional samples collected from a wider geographic area. They also made use of data gathered from the genomes of gray wolves and jackals.

Instead of replicating the results highlighted by Gaubert, Koepfli and his team discovered new findings.

The researchers were able to confirm that the Eurasian and African golden jackals were two distinct species after they analyzed 38 various genetic markers collected from 128 specimens of canid species. These included golden jackals native to Eurasia, Kenya and North Africa; gray wolves and even specimens from domestic dogs.

Koepfli and his team believe that the African golden jackal is a new species of wolf, and that it shares an ancient ancestor with the Eurasian jackal that could have lived millions of years in the past.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute-led study is published in the Current Biology journal.

Photo: Stig Nygaard | Flickr 

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