For 150 years, biologists took it for granted that golden jackals in Africa were, in fact, golden jackals -- closely related to other golden jackals originating from Eurasia.
It made sense. The animals were about the same size and looked a lot alike. But it turns out to have been a case of mistaken identity: A new DNA analysis shows that the African "jackals" are in fact more closely related to a sort of wolf than they are to the Eurasian golden jackals.
The discovery, conducted by an international team of researchers and published last week in the journal Current Biology, shows that DNA can provide definitive answers when the eyes deceive, said UCLA evolutionary biologist Robert Wayne, one of the study coauthors.
"That's what DNA lets us do," he said. "It lets you uncover the past."
Wayne first studied the purported African golden jackals 25 years ago.
"What had always fascinated us was that there were species that had such huge distributions," he said. The golden jackal was one such beast. Its habitat extended from East Africa to North Africa and into Eurasia.
Wayne and his colleagues at that time had wondered how the golden jackal was able to thrive so widely and not be crowded out by competition. In North America, where the animal does not exist, "you have wolves and coyotes and that's it," he said. "There's no room for anything else."
So he traveled to East Africa to investigate, collecting data that suggested that the canids in Africa, including the "jackals," had managed to divide up resources by adopting different hunting and foraging patterns.
But when another group of researchers recently studied mitochondrial DNA from an African golden jackal and found it seemed more closely related to a gray wolf than to a Eurasian golden jackal, it forced Wayne and a new set of colleagues to take another look.
The group embarked on a comprehensive genetic analysis, running a variety of tests on mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from a number of canids, including jackals, wolves and coyotes -- "probably the most extensive analysis to designate species status that has ever been done," Wayne said.
In the end, it all pointed toward the same result: that the "jackal" was actually a relative of a North African wolf, and not as closely related to golden jackals living in Asia. So why did it look so much like a jackal? Perhaps because, forced to compete with the other canids around it, it had evolved to occupy a niche appropriate for a smaller animal.
"It's golden jackal-sized, and they have those in the Middle East, so we thought it must be a golden jackal. That's why it fooled us for 150 years," Wayne said.
The newly identified animal already had a scientific name, Canis anthus, but the researchers assigned it a new informal name: the African golden wolf.
African golden wolves are "not particularly abundant," Wayne said, in part because of habitat and prey base loss in their range, from North to East Africa.
He said he hoped the new research would draw attention to the animals, which are not conserved in zoos or protected through conservation plans.