When DNA Trumps Looks – Meet the African Golden Wolf
golden jackal

The last canid (group of animals including dogs, foxes, jackals and wolves) species discovered in Africa was more than 150 years ago. That changes today. DNA testing shows the golden jackal of East Africa should be considered a wolf.

The golden jackal of East Africa looks remarkably similar to the golden jackal seen in Eurasia.

Here’s what a former golden jackal in East Africa looks like.

african golden jackal

And a golden jackal from Eurasia.

eurasia golden jackal

You can’t tell the difference. But, DNA testing shows there is.

Klaus-Peter Koepfli and Robert Wayne, both from UCLA, led a new study looking into the DNA of the African golden jackal. Why were they interested in the African golden jackal? Recent studies suggested the African golden jackal is a subspecies of the gray wolf. But, the studies were hampered by analysis of only mitochondrial DNA.

Koepfli and Wayne sought to expand the DNA evidence. Using DNA samples collected 20 years ago in Kenya and samples from golden jackals in Eurasia, a more in-depth DNA analysis revealed a new species.

“To our surprise, the small, golden-like jackal from eastern Africa was actually a small variety of a new species, distinct from the gray wolf, that has a distribution across North and East Africa,” Wayne said.

The mitochondrial DNA between the two species differs by up to 6.7%.

The new DNA analysis suggests the two species have been evolving independently of one another for at least a million years. Koepfli and Wayne point to the two species similar skull and tooth morphology as the reason zoologists have mistaken them.

As for their similar looks? Both species have lived in pretty much the same environments and feeding on the same prey. Their physical traits are nearly identical and is a process known as parallel evolution.

The discovery of the African golden wolf increases the number of living canid species to 36.

Image credits: Wikipedia / Eyal Cohen

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