New species are discovered surprisingly often. But it's not every day we realize an entire lineage of wolves — the large, charismatic cousins of man's best friend — have been lurking under our noses for more than a million years.
That's the conclusion of an intriguing new study, published in the journal Current Biology, which re-examines the identity of "golden jackals" living in Africa. Not only are these a separate species from the golden jackals of Eurasia, the researchers report, but they're not even jackals. Meet the African golden wolf (Canis anthus).
"This represents the first discovery of a 'new' canid species in Africa in more than 150 years," lead author and Smithsonian biologist Klaus-Peter Koepfli says in a statement. The finding increases the number of living species in the family Canidae — which includes dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes and jackals — from 35 to 36.
The study was inspired by recent reports that African golden jackals might be a subspecies of gray wolf. While that research relied on mitochondrial DNA, Koepfli and his colleagues decided to test the theory by comparing genome-wide DNA samples from jackals, gray wolves and dogs. They found that African golden jackals aren't a subspecies of gray wolf; they're a previously unknown 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," says senior author and UCLA ecologist Robert Wayne.
A Eurasian golden jackal pauses while foraging at Corbett National Park in India. (Photo: Koshy Koshy/Flickr)
The African golden wolf has long been considered an offshoot of the Eurasian jackal (Canis aureus), which ranges from Southern Europe through the Middle East to Southeast Asia, and it's easy to see why. The two canids act alike and look alike, from body size and fur color to skull and tooth shape. But that's apparently just because they occupy similar ecological niches, a phenomenon known as convergent evolution.
According to the new analysis, they hail from separate lineages that split about 1.9 million years ago. African golden wolves split from the lineage of gray wolves and coyotes about 1.3 million years ago, the researchers report. By comparison, we branched off from earlier human species some 200,000 years ago.
As Koepfli tells Reuters, this illustrates how much we still have to learn about our planet's wildlife — including iconic animals we thought we knew. "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."
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