3 Aug 2015 02:39 PM EST
New DNA evidence reveals that the “golden jackal” of East Africa is actually a species of wolf.
The jackals are remarkably similar in appearance to the golden jackals of Eurasia, but they are two completely different species, according to a study conducted at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the University of California.
“This represents the first discovery of a ‘new’ canid species in Africa in over 150 years,” says Klaus-Peter Koepfli, one of the leads in the study.
The researchers studied the mitochondrial DNA of the species, and concluded that the African golden jackal is actually a subspecies of the grey wolf. The team then tested golden jackals from Europe and Asia, and discovered that they did not share the same DNA signature.
"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," says Robert Wayne, the other lead in the study.
The researchers suspect that the wolves were mistaken for jackals because of similarities in the skull and tooth morphology. The research shows differently though. The study suggests that the two species have been evolving independently for at least a million years.
Not only are they not the same species, they’re not even very closely related. The newly discovered wolf subspecies is related more closely to wolves and coyotes than jackals.
Koepfli says that this research is a reminder that “even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity" thanks to DNA testing and research.
Golden jackals are a prevalent species in parts of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and southeast Asia. It’s similar to the wolf, but has different coloring, lighter footing, has a more slender body and muzzle, and a shorter tail. Despite being a different species, golden jackals are occasionally capable of mating with wolves.
The golden jackal has been renamed by the researchers as the African golden wolf.
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