One story that has missed much of the English-speaking press and English-speaking scientists is that the golden jackal’s range in Eastern Europe has now expanded to the Baltic nations of Latvia and Estonia.
Golden jackals don’t get much billing in the world of wolf-like canids, but they are closely related to wolves and coyotes. Indeed, one way to think of golden jackals and coyotes is they both represent rather primitive lineages of wolves, ones that are much smaller the typical wolf and retain the primitive body language, especially the gape threat. Both coyotes and golden jackals are chemically interfertile with wolves and domestic dogs
These smaller, more primitive wolves are actually doing pretty well and have expanded their range. Coyotes in North America now range from Alaska to Newfoundland down to southern Panama, and the golden jackal, which ranges across northern and East Africa across southern Asia to Cambodia, is also expanding its range.
Historically golden jackals made it up into the Caucasus and into the southern Balkans and Greece. They were well-established in the reed marshes of Hungary for several centuries, where they were called “reed wolves.”
However, in the past few decades, golden jackals have spread northward into Austria, Slovakia and Southern Poland. It was thought that these jackals would be unable to go deep into Eastern Europe, simply because golden jackals were thought to be unable to handle the cold very well or wolves would check their advance.
In 2011, though, something strange happened, a woman in Western Estonia (Lääne County heard unusual howls in the night. In that a wildlife researcher named Liisi Laos found the tracks of unusual canid tracks in the same region. These tracks came from four individuals, and they were thought to be golden jackals.
In 2013, hunting dogs killed a jackal, and now, it’s pretty much accepted that golden jackals are in Western Estonia.
Their range has also expanded into nearby Latvia, where they were confirmed last year.
The questions about these jackals are rampant. Because there was no record of jackals in northern Poland or in Lithuania, it was suggested that someone brought them in to Estonia. However, that suggestion seems less likely because it turns out that jackals are in Ukraine and Belarus. That means that the jackals of the Baltic could have come up from Romania or southern Poland into Ukraine and then up through Belarus into Latvia and Estonia. (Which would be the reverse of where they were first documented).
The reason these jackals remained undetected is because this region is not heavily populated. Eastern Europe is much, much wilder than the West, and the golden jackals could have been mistaken for young wolves and generally ignored.
There is some suggestion that climate change has allowed these golden jackals to colonize such a cold part of Europe, and there may be something to it. However, this part of Europe has much harsher winters than Western Europe, which means they could be on their way to colonizing all the way out to France, Spain, and Portugal.
Modern Europe isn’t such a bad place for a jackal, and we do know that a jackal-like canid lived in Europe during the Pleistocene. It was called Canis arnensis, and it could have been an ancestor of the golden jackal. So there is some precedent for these sorts of canids in Europe. Indeed, one of the proposed ancestors of the modern wolf is Canis mosbachensis, and it was not much larger than a European golden jackal.
So maybe conditions are favorable for a little primitive wolf to colonize Europe once again.
And before anyone freaks out, I’ll just give you an idea of the size of the golden jackal in Europe.
This is a photo of an individual that was killed in Bulgaria.
We’re not even talking Eastern coyote-sized animals, but they could be important competitors for red foxes and the invasive raccoon dogs that have spread throughout the region.
So Europe might have its own little coyote very soon!