The Egyptian jackal, which may have been the inspiration for the Egyptian god Anubis, is actually not a jackal at all but a member of the wolf family. New genetic research in the open-access journal PLoS ONE finds that the Egyptian jackal is Africa’s only member of the gray wolf family. The new wolf, dubbed by researchers as the African wolf, is most closely related to the Himalayan wolf.
“We could hardly believe our own eyes when we found wolf DNA that did not match anything in GenBank,” lead author, Dr Eli Rueness, said in a press release. GenBank is an open-access nucleotide database.
The genetic data also points to an early origin for the Egyptian jackal/African wolf. In fact, researchers believe the animal is older than well-known wolves of the northern hemisphere. According to the study, Indian, Himalayan, and the new African wolf, broke off from the gray wolf before it moved north, colonizing Europe, northern Asia, and the Americas, further subdividing into different subspecies. Ethiopian wolves, which are a unique species of canids, are older still.
The study does not appear to make a recommendation whether or not this new wolf should be considered a unique species in its own right or another subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupus). Currently, gray wolf subspecies number in the thirties, and distinction between species and subspecies continues to be debated for a number of them.
However the new African wolf is classified, researchers argue the discovery must change how the animal is viewed in conservation. The authors call for the African wolf to be assessed individually, especially considering evidence that the animal is rare. The animal is not protected in Egypt and is often persecuted as it is considered a threat to livestock.
In good news, the researchers discovered that the African wolf, previously Egyptian jackal, is actually present in the Ethiopian highlands, expanding its known range considerably.
“This study shows the strengths of modern genetic techniques: old puzzles can be solved,” Nils Chr. Stenseth, Chair of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) and an author of the paper, says.