What was once called the African golden jackal now has a new name, thanks to the work of Klaus-Peter Keopfli of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who recently discovered that the jackal isn't really a jackal at all, but is an entirely separate species of wolf.
Koepfli's curiosity, spurred by a 2012 paper published by Philippe Gaubert, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France, encouraged him to test Gaubert's findings that African golden jackals were a subspecies of the gray wolf.
What Koepfli found was not what he anticipated; the African golden jackal was not a subspecies of gray wolf, it is its own species. Through testing of mitochondrial DNA, Koepfli discovered that the African golden jackal is actually the African golden wolf.
"To our surprise, the small, golden jackal from eastern Africa was actually a small variety of a new species, distinct from the gray wolf, that has distribution across North and East Africa," said Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the report, in an interview with Treehugger.
The finding is the first of its kind in more than 150 years, and the finding is significant. But it has its critics, including Gaubert, whose paper on the African golden jackal inspired the research in the first place.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," Gaubert said in an interview with National Geographic.
Koepfli and his team of researchers insist that despite similarities in appearance, what is now known as the African golden wolf is distinctly different from the Eurasian golden jackal, and is not a subspecies of the gray wolf.
"Our results showed that African and Eurasian golden jackals were distinct across all genetic markers we tested, including data from whole genomes, suggesting these are independently evolving lineages," said Koepfli in an interview with CBCNews.
Greger Larson, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Oxford, agrees.
"They have phenomenal data, and they do a nice series of analyses. It's a super airtight case," he told National Geographic in reference to the study that Koepfli and his team published in the journal Current Biology.
Besides expanding the biological family Canidae to 36 (included in the family are coyote, dogs, fox, jackals, and wolves), the study brings to light that there is more to be learned from species of animals that we think we know everything about.
The African golden wolf resides in northern and eastern Africa, primarily in the region of Kenya. It is distinctive in that its coat is a light golden hue, with just a smattering of black markings, making it appear different from the black-backed jackal also found in the region.
[Image courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson]