Wolf in Jackal's Clothing Tricks Scientists

01/29/2011

Sometimes animals fool scientists about their true identity.  The wild dog species that has been known for decades as the Egyptian jackal actually turns out to be a gray wolf.  This odd case of mistaken identity has nothing to do with deliberate duplicity on the part of the animal, it's just a reflection on how tricky taxonomy, the science of classification of living things, can be.

Egyptian jackal WIKIMEDIA
This photo of an Egyptian jackal shows hints of wolflike proportions compared to other jackal species. See photos below for comparison.

The Egyptian jackal (Canis aureus lupaster), as its common name suggests, is found in Egypt and has always been classified as a subspecies of the golden jackal (Canis aureus).  However, recent DNA analysis has revealed that it's actually a kind of gray wolf (Canis lupus)

Golden Jackal Rainbirder FLICKR
A golden jackal.

The designation of this animal as a type golden jackal made a lot of sense given that jackals are one of the most common canid species in Africa and the fact that, well, they look a lot like jackals.  Also, while gray wolves have an extremely wide range and are found across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Asia and North America, they aren't found in Africa (the extremely rare and endangered Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis, is a closely related wolf species that does live in Africa).

Ethiopian wolf James Hopkirk FLICKR
An Ethiopian wolf.

But when you base animal classification simply on external characteristics such as the way an animal looks and where it lives, you can set yourself up for confusion.  For most of history, that's been all we've had to go on.  Luckily, today's taxonomists have the ability to study an animal's DNA, which can reveal surprising things that you can't tell just by looking at it. Now, it seems that the animal once known as the Egyptian jackal is soon to become known as the African wolf. 

This new discovery reveals something else that's particularly interesting.  Gray wolves, like human beings, evolved in Africa and eventually spread out to populate the other continents from there.

Gray wolf whalt FLICKR
A North American gray wolf.

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Photos:
Egyptian jackal via Wikimedia Commons.
Golden jackal by Rainbirder via Flickr Creative Commons.
Gray wolf by whalt via Flickr Creative Commons.
Ethiopian wolf by James Hopkirk via Flickr Creative Commons.


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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