In the south of Hungary, there are extensive swamps of reeds, and in them exists an enigmatic canid. It described as a small wolf, not unlike a North American coyote. However, the native wolf of Hungary is the Eurasian or common wolf (Canis lupus lupus). It is much larger than a coyote, approaching the size of a German shepherd (at least a normal sized one). If the Reed wolf is not a common wolf, then what is it?
There are four possible hypotheses: 1. It’s an unknown subspecies of wolf. 2. It’s an unknown species of canid. 3. It’s a European golden jackal, which are know to inhabit the Balkans. 4. It’s a hybrid between a wolf and a golden jackal, which rarely occur in the wild. Let’s then explore these hypotheses.
As for the first hypothesis, we actually don’t know how many species or subspecies of wolf exist in the world. The exact taxonomy is greatly debated in wolf expert circles, with some arguing that all wolves are members of a single species, Canis lupus, and others claiming that the Eastern North American wolf (C. l. lycaon or C. lycaon), the Red wolf (C.l. rufus or C. rufus), the Indian wolf (C. l. pallipes or C. indica) and the Tibetan wolf (C. l. laniger or C. himalayensis) are separate species. I am of the camp that there is only one rather genetically diverse species of wolf, and this species includes the animals we call the domestic dog, the dingo, and the New Guinea singing dog. However, this question becomes complicated with the animal formerly known as the Simien jackal is now considered to be much more closely related to wolves than jackals. In fact, we now consider it to be the Ethiopian wolf. Where it fits in this taxonomic muddle is even more contentious. If the reed wolf is a subspecies of wolf, then we will have an even more contentious piece to properly assign the correct taxonomy.
Now, the next question is whether a wolf could be as small as coyote or jackal. The answer is yes. The Arabian wolf (Canis lupus arabs) often weighs as little as 25 pounds, which is about the size of a Southwestern coyote bitch. Further, an extinct subspecies of wolf once existed called the Shamanu or Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax), which was found on Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu in Japan. It stood only 12-14 inches at the shoulder and weighed as little as 15 pounds. It was an example of island dwarfing, and it is now considered to be the smallest subspecies of wolf that ever existed. Thus, we have several small subpecies of wolf that have existed.
I don’t know why a smaller race of wolf would evolve for the Reed swamps of Hungary, but it may be that there isn’t enough large prey in those swamps to sustain a large wolf. However, it could be that this smaller wolf represents an earlier population of wolves that specialized in hunting smaller prey than the larger and more successful common wolf. As the common wolf moved into its territory, the Reed wolf was forced to the margins, which might explain why it’s not as commonly seen. After all, we know that in the American West, coyotes are forced to the margins of wolf territory. Coyotes are regularly killed by wolves, who see the smaller canid as a competitor.
Now, the next hypothesis is that it represents an unknown species of canid. As I said earlier, we don’t know how many species or subspecies of wolf exist. We also don’t know how many species of canid currently exist. There is some debate on whether the Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki is a separate species from the mainland raccoon dog, and the extinct warrah or Falklands wolf’s exact relationship to the other species of wild dog is unresolved. Further, we do get reports of unusual wild dogs throughout the world. Now, some of these might be unusual domestic dogs, which are the most diverse of all animals, hybrids between domestic dogs and other members of the genus Canis, or known canids with unusual conformation.
We also have these cryptid canines. I don’t think any of these things are hyenas or anything very unusual. Do keep in mind that hybridization among the genus Canis produces weird animals. The Beast of Gevaudan, which killed lots of peasants in eighteenth century France, was most likely a hybrid between the common wolf and the Dogue de Bordeaux or similar molosser breed. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if unknown species of wild dog exist. (BTW, the shunka wara’kin is not a hyena. It’s a poorly taxidermied wolf or wolf hybrid. The creature of legend is probably one of the large extinct hyenas that used to live around Beringia during the Pleistocene. The story of such large predatory animals most likely survived in Native American folklore. And I must repeat, hyenas are not dogs. They are in no way related to them. They are more closely related to cats than they are to dogs.)
Now, the third hypothesis is the one I think most likely, although it may have some aspects of the fourth hypothesis working with it. Golden jackals are found in Southeastern Europe from Bulgaria through the Southern Balkans to the Adriatic Coast. This range is a bit south of the Hungarian Reed Swamps where reports of the reed wolf have been reported.
However, it is not beyond reason that a golden jackal would move north into this region. Golden jackals have a wide range through North Africa, East Africa, and Asia. This range includes rather cold places, like the Caucasus and Central Asia. Further, we know that coyotes have spread their range very far to the north and east since European man extirpated the wolf from much of North America. ( However, it is now believed that coyotes were present in the East and were extirpated with the wolves. The coyotes then were able to recolonize the East far faster than the wolves were able to after the widespread killing stopped.)
Now common wolves in Eastern Europe do have some problems. There are less than 50 in the whole country, and they are not found in the reed swamps. They are found in the eastern part of Hungary, not the south.
However, it is possible that the animal seen in the reed swamps is a hybrid. Wolves (including all animals though of as Canis lupus and the Ethiopian wolf), golden jackals, and coyotes can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. It is thought that the wolves of Eastern North America and the South had their numbers reduced so significantly that the remainin wolves hybridize with coyotes. As a result, the two wolves from this region, the Eastern North American wolf and the red wolves, have been called either separate species or hybrids. (I think they are the result of ancient hybridization with some more modern hybridization that resulted from the widespread persecution of both wolves and coyotes in the East. However, just because they have some hybridization does not mean they don’t represent an important subspecies that provided a vital role to the ecosystems in which they once lived.)
Now it’s possible that as the common wolf became less common in that part of Hungary, some remnant wolves met up with golden jackal bitches that were occasionally frequenting Hungary as they continued to spread their range. Normally, they would have killed the golden jackal bitches, but because golden jackal bitches were the only thing to mate with, they mated with them. Now, coyote and jackal hybrids loose their fertility as they are bred through three or four generations. However, if a hybrid occurs once and then is bred back to one of the parents’ species, the fertility can remain intact. Because mitochondrial DNA studies are de rigueur in these taxonomic debates, it is possible to find wolves with coyote mitochondrial DNA. I guarantee you that it is also possible to find wolves with golden jackal MtDNA.
And I have a possibility in which this has occurred.
All the old wolf taxonomy books mention a race of wolf called the Egyptian wolf (Canis lupus lupaster). This animal was found in Egypt and Lybia. It is not the same race that is found in the Sinai, which is the Arabian wolf. Today, it is considered Canis aureus lupaster, a race of golden jackal. Studies of its mtDNA found that it mtDNA sequence was that of golden jackals. It’s a very strange golden jackal, however. It significantly larger than golden jackals, and it sometimes forms packs to hunt. However, golden jackals are known to be occasional pack hunters.
I think there actually was an Egyptian wolf that was independent of the golden jackal. I think that there were isolated populations of wolves or wolf ancestors in several parts of North Africa. However, all of these have been killed. The Ethiopian wolf represents the last of these wolves in North Africa, and it is critically endangered. As the wolves have been killed off, their smaller populations were forced to breed with golden jackals. Then the golden jackals hybrids bred back to the golden jackal species. However, they had some wolf characteristics. When the studies for the mtDNA were performed, the findings showed golden jackal mtDNA. However, they are a mixture of wolf and jackal.
Now, some authorities point to molecular clocks which use the measurements of mutations in those mtDNA sequences to determine when populations split away from each other. There are some peoblems with using these on dog species. The original studies on dog mtDNA found that dogs separated from wolves over 100,000 years ago. Now, we know the split was some time between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. I am very skeptical of any studies that use these clocks. The truth is we know that wolves were originally much more diverse than they were before man began killing them off. None of these studies ever seem to use the information on the great genetic diversity in ancient wolf populations. In which case, the unique mtDNA found in Indian wolves and Tibetan wolves might merely be reflections of a past greater genetic diversity in the species.
My guess is the reed wolf is the golden jackals. My second guess is that it’s a hybrid. I’d be thrilled if it were a new subspecies of wolf or a totally new species of canid. But I guess we won’t know until one is captured and its DNA is fully sequenced.