By Dr. Becker
The discovery of a new species is always exciting. It highlights the fact that you're living among creatures right now that no one even knows exist.
Researchers have uncovered a number of new species in recent months, from the 11 new chameleon species discovered in Madagascar, to the bone-house wasp in China, and the new heart urchin in the Philippines.
Perhaps even more exciting is the discovery of a new species in the canidae family, which is a group of animals that includes wolves, coyotes, foxes, jackals, and even domestic dogs. As National Geographic reported, this is the first new species of canid discovered in the last 150 years.1
It turns out that the golden jackal isn't one species after all. Instead, it's actually two species (distantly related). One is a Eurasian jackal and the other is actually a wolf, now named the African golden wolf.
African Golden Jackals Turn Out to Be Two Distinct Species
Researchers have wondered since at least 2012 whether African golden jackals may actually be a subspecies of gray wolf. According to research published in PLOS One:2
"The recent discovery of a lineage of gray wolf in North-East Africa suggests the presence of a cryptic canid on the continent, the African wolf Canis lupus lupaster … Our results suggest that the African wolf is a relatively ancient gray wolf lineage with a fairly large, past effective population size.
… Unique field observations in Senegal allowed us to provide a morphological and behavioral diagnosis of the African wolf that clearly distinguished it from the sympatric golden jackal … In terms of conservation, it appears urgent to further characterize the status of the African wolf with regard to the African golden jackal."
In the featured study, researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia expected to verify the PLOS One findings.
They analyzed genetic markers from 128 canid specimens (including golden jackals, gray wolves, and dogs), and found that African and Eurasian gold jackals are two separate species.
Surprisingly, however, rather than being a subspecies of gray wolf, the African golden jackal turned out to be a new wolf species entirely. According to the study:3
"Our results provide consistent and robust evidence that populations of golden jackals from Africa and Eurasia represent distinct monophyletic lineages separated for more than one million years, sufficient to merit formal recognition as different species: C. anthus (African golden wolf) and C. aureus (Eurasian golden jackal)."
The two species look very much the same, but in the case of detecting new species you can't always judge a book by its cover. The animals' environments likely dictated their appearance, for instance, leading to small bodies and light-colored coats (which would keep them cooler in their desert habitat).4
Study leader Klaus-Peter Koepfli told National Geographic, "We're finding that the genetic information can tell us a very different story about animals."5 He continued in a CBC News article:6
"One of the main takeaways of our study is that even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity, and that such discoveries are made even more possible by using data sampled from whole genomes."
The Canidae Family Is Incredibly Diverse
If you stand a Chihuahua next to a great Dane, it's easy to see the incredible diversity that exists in the canidae family, even among the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dogs). More than 30 species make up the canidae family.
The smallest, at just over nine inches tall and two pounds in weight, is the Fennec fox. The largest, at 6.5 feet tall and up to 145 pounds, is the gray wolf. Canids live all over the world, from the savannas in Africa, to the mountains of North America. Canids can also be found in grasslands, forests, and deserts.7
Most canids live in social groups called packs. Jackals are the exception; they typically travel in pairs (and they also mate for life). Wolves live in a pack that's typically led by one dominant male, and only the lead male and female in the pack breed. Of the more than 30 species in the canidae family, five of them are threatened. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Canid Specialist Group:8
"Darwin's fox and red wolf are listed as Critically Endangered, while Ethiopian wolf, African wild dog, and dhole are Endangered. The bush dog, maned wolf, Sechura fox, short-eared dog, and island fox are listed as Near Threatened.
Others are rare and even declining, while many wild canids are too common for their own good, and thus are involved in major wildlife management issues (such as disease transmission, predation on livestock, sport hunting, and fur trade)."