Posts Tagged ‘Arabian wolf’

Let’s say you’ve been asked to identify a tree.

And all you’ve been given are two twigs.

You might get it right.

If you’re educated, you might get within the right genus, but getting the exact species is probably next to impossible.

Now, let’s say someone gave you a log and asked you to do the same thing.

Logs are a bigger part of  the tree.  They have bark, and you can examine the hardness and texture of the wood.

You are much more likely to get it right.

Currently, there is a debate between geneticists about the origin of the domestic dog. One school, which uses studies mtDNA and y-chromosomes, say that dogs have origins in either southern China or Southeast Asia.  The other, which has examined nearly 50,000 SNP’s (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) within the dog genome and found that dogs are most similar in their genome to Middle Eastern wolves.

The ones who are looking at mtDNA and y-chromosomes are looking at twigs.  They are but a tiny fraction of the genome compared to the 50,000 SNP’s.  All mtDNA does is trace maternal heritage, and it’s possible to get severe errors with it, such as under-estimating when savanna and forest elephants split or diving the Indian wolf a separate species.  The exact same errors can be made with y-chromosome analysis. The only difference is that y-chromosome analysis looks at paternal heritage.

That’s why I’m generally dismissive of the new studies (this one and this one) that say dogs are derived from Southeast Asia or East Asian wolves. There are no Southeast Asian wolves, except for a few that live in Myanmar (Burma), so it’s always been a very silly thing for people to puff up about.  Except for those Burmese wolves, there have never been Canis lupus wolves in Southeast Asia, but there have been golden jackals and their relativels. Similarly, Southern China is on on the periphery of the wolf’s range– and always has been.

The landmark study of dog and wolf nuclear DNA was performed at UCLA.  Peter Savolaninen, who is the major proponent of the theory that dog originated in East Asia, complains that this study didn’t include any wolves from south of the Yangtze. It didn’t need to. It included dingoess, which have origins in Southeast Asian domestic dogs. They take the place of that much harder to procure sample.

The problem with these “twig” studies is they are much easier to perform and analyze than the genome-wide analyses.

I’m much more willing to trust a study that used a “log” than one that looked at “twigs.”


Mark Derr performs a devastating take-down of the theory that dogs originated in East Asia in How the Dog Became the Dog.  He points out that the time period for which dogs supposedly originated in East Asia does not correspond with any archaeological data. Dogs don’t appear in that part of the world until thousands of years after they appear in other parts of the world.

Now, just because dogs appear to be most closely related to Middle Eastern wolves does not mean that they became morphologically distinct from wolves there.  Derr wrote that the first morphologically distinct dogs would be found in Central Asia– and just a few months later, a 33,000-year-old skull of wolf with domestication features was discovered in the Altai Republic.

It’s also an error to look for an origin time and place for domestic dogs. It actually involved relations between people and wolves that took place over tens of thousands of years.  Middle Eastern wolves were the basis for most dogs we have today, but some of those from East Asia– including the dingo– do show some influence from Chinese wolves. Some European breeds show some influence from European wolves.



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My favorite wolf

Canis lupus arabs in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.

Some of these Israeli Arabian wolves are weigh only 25 pounds. Until the cryptic African wolf subspecies was discovered last winter,  it was the smallest extant subspecies.  The African wolves were considered a subspecies of golden jackal.

In addition to these very smaller extant subspecies, there was also a diminutive subspecies of Canis lupus in Japan. It was most common in Honshu, but it was also found on Shikoku and Kyushu.  It became extinct because of a rabies epidemic that caused these little wolves to attack people.

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Canis lupus arabs— the Arabian wolf:

And Canis lupus pallipes– the Iranian wolf:

According to recent genome-wide analysis, most domestic dogs share many more genetic markers with Middle Eastern wolves than with any other subspecies.

Arabian wolves weigh 25-55 pounds. Arabian wolves have the same “small dog” gene that causes very small size in domestic dogs. They also have the fused middle toes on the front feet, a trait they share with basenjis.

Iranian wolves go 55-70 pounds, rough the same size as a typical golden retriever.

Neither of these wolves are the big “moose-killer” wolves from the northern parts of Eurasia and North America that every knows so well, that everyone sees in zoos, and that everyone thinks are the primary ancestors of the domestic dogs.  Research that in anyway compares dogs to these wolves is methodological murky, for these wolves are actually quite specialized in their behavior.  These smaller Middle Eastern wolf subspecies are much more generalist in their behavior and prey choices. It might be a better study to compare “primitive” domestic dogs, like dingoes and basenjis, with these wolves.

The unfortunate problem with this suggestion is there aren’t many of these wolves in captivity in the West, and many of those in captivity in other parts of the world are crossbred with dogs and other wolf subspecies.

But it isn’t fair to compare border collies and golden retrievers, highly specialized dog breeds, to the large northern wolves, which are highly specialized wild wolves.

But even comparisons between dogs and these wolves are problematic. These are not exactly the same wolves that were domesticated over 15,000 years ago. These wolves had the misfortune of living in the part of the world where agriculture took first took hold, and they also happen to live where people first started to herd sheep and goats. Wolves are never welcome where sheep and goats are being raised.

So these were likely the first wolves to be persecuted.

And as I’ve always noted, the effects of persecution on changing wolf behavior– both in terms of learned behavior and brain chemistry– are not considered carefully enough when trying to make comparisons between wild wolves and domestic dogs. It was likely that the original wolves were much less reactive animals than they are now and were much more willing to live near people and consider them social partners. We see this same sort of tameness in all sorts of wild dogs when they are not persecuted. Arctic foxes were not widely persecuted until recently, and they were very easy to kill and even tame as adults.

It seems to me that these ancestral Middle Eastern wolves were much more like these unpersecuted arctic foxes and not like these paranoid and emotionally reactive animals they are today.

They had to have been very easy to tame, for domestic dogs, unlike other domestic species, were not domesticated by breeding tame individuals to other tame individuals. If that were the case, we would have a clear genetic bottleneck that could be compared to wild wolf DNA to determine when dogs were domesticated. We have not found this genetic bottleneck. Instead, we have found that, as a population, domestic dogs retain much of the wolf’s genetic diversity.

That means that dogs evolved as a population of wolves. They were not domesticated by breeding tame to tame, as has been the case with virtually every other domestic species. And those domestic animals have far lower genetic diversity than their wild ancestors do.

Dogs lost genetic diversity only when they were made into breeds.

And just because domestic dogs likely derive from these two subspecies, we cannot assume that they actually became dogs, as we know them as distinct from wolves, in the Middle East.

But we just don’t know where these wolves evolved into dogs. We have some guesses.

But it is possible that wolves of this type would have followed people throughout Eurasia, and they could have started to turn into dog-like phenotypes anywhere in Eurasia– even Africa cannot be ruled out entirely.

So we know which subspecies are most closely related to dogs and could be called their most likely primary ancestors.

But everything else is still a bit of a guess.

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Remember when I threw a small fit when I came across this site that claimed all the genetic evidence pointed to the coyote as the ancestor of the domestic dog?  Actually, all the genetic evidence thus far has clearly pointed to the simple reality that not only are dogs descended from the wolf (Canis lupus) and has pointed to the Middle Eastern subspecies as the main genetic stock from which all dogs are derived. This evidence also suggests that domestic dogs are a form of Canis lupus, not a unique species or derived from some other canid– be it living, dead, or imagined.

Well, here’s another dubious and poorly thought out theory about the origins of a certain breed of dog. This site claims that the basenji, which is actually very closely related to these ancestral Middle Eastern wolves, is derived from the Ethiopian wolf.

Let me show you where that is wrong:

I know that the Ethiopian wolf was once claimed to have been an African offshoot of Canis lupus. Later genomic analysis found that the Ethiopian wolf is more distantly related to the dog and wolf species than the golden jackal and the coyote. Some golden jackals, it has more recently been revealed, are actually part of the wolf and dog species. These particular wolves have not been compared to the other wolf and dog subspecies using a genome-wide analysis, but my guess is that these “African wolves” (Canis lupus lupaster) are probably closely related to the Arabian wolves and domestic dogs. These wolves do have unique mitochondrial DNA sequences, as do some Indian pallipes and Himalayan chanco wolves, but these might all prove to be much more closely related to dogs and the other Middle Eastern and South Asian wolves than the the mitochondrial DNA analysis would suggest.

However, there is no evidence that any dog is derived from the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). They do hybridize with dogs and produce fertile offspring, but all of the studies on hybridization have been on the dog contribution to Ethiopian wolves. It is possible that some dogs in the Ethiopian Highlands have some contribution from Ethiopian wolf, but it is a stretch to make the claim that the basenji of  rainforests of Central Africa has anything to do with the Ethiopian wolves living in the harsh alpine country of Ethiopia.

If you want to make things very confusing, some of the newly discovered African wolves are from Ethiopia, but it is not accurate to call them Ethiopian wolves.

Canis lupus lupaster ≠ Canis simensis

And neither have been found to be ancestral to Canis lupus familiaris, which is mostly derived from Canis lupus arabs and Canis lupus pallipes.


This site also make a claim that black-backed jackals crossed with basenjis, too.

The only thing I need to do with that one is laugh.

Black backed jackals, let me repeat, cannot interbreed with domestic dogs.

Golden jackals, yes. Golden jackals are much more closely related to the wolf and dog species than they are to anything else that is commonly referred to as a jackal.

See where they are on the dog family phylogenetic tree pictured above? African wild dogs and dholes are actualy more closely related to wolves and dogs than black- backed jackals are.   And no hybrids between the dog and wolf species and these two canids has ever been produced, even though they should be placed in the genus Canis.  If black-backed and side-striped jackals belong in the genus Canis, then dholes and African wild dogs clearly do.

Black-backed jackals are actually the oldest extant species in the genus Canis. And no one has found that black-backed or side-striped jackals, which are found only in Sub-Saharan Africa have ever crossbred with dogs. Although many prick-eared dogs have been claimed to be part black-backed jackal, not a single hybrid has been produced so that a DNA sample could be taken.

My guess is that these hybrids simply don’t exist.

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This is in Saudi Arabia, and it should give you some idea of one of the size and behavior of one of the wolves that is likely behind most dogs in the world today.




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Arabian wolf

It’s not great that this one is chained (or even in captivity), but it does give you some idea about the size of an Arabian wolf. This one is in Saudi Arabia:



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The endangered African wild or "painted wolf" is a descendant of the larger Xenocyon lycanoides-- the so-called "African wolf."

Xenocyon lycaonoides.

The way the Greek rolls of the tongue suggests something like a Spartan general who led his phalanxes against the Persians.

It was actually a large  canid that lived between 1. 8 million and 126,000 thousand years ago. Although its name suggests a totally African range, it was also found in Eurasia.

It was larger than the typical modern wolf, and it was probably a major predator of  all sorts of wildlife. It is even suggested that this hulking wolfish creature preyed upon early man.

It was not a true wolf as we would know it today. It came from a different line of large wild dogs.

Its most likely descendant is the African wild dog or “painted wolf” (Lycaon pictus). However, Xenocyon was a much more robust animal than these multicolored carnivores.

Xenocyon was a very successful species from which several different forms descended. The so-called Sardinian dhole, which lived on the island that became Sardinia and Corsica, was probably descended from Xenocyon. It is often suggested that the Sardinian dhole (Cynotherium sardous) was nothing more than a dwarf insular form of Xenocyon.  Two extinct Javanese dogs may have also been descendant of Xenocyon.

Current research of the modern dhole’s molecular evolution suggests that it did not descend from Xenocyon. It is an early offshoot of the line that gave us the genus Canis. It’s more closely related to wolves, jackals, and coyotes than the African wild dog, which it superficially resembles.

There is a move in some academic circles to move Xenocyon and its variants into the genus Lycaon.

Of course, we could put all of them in the genus Xenocyon, but it would make more sense to put them in the same genus as the living species.

After all, it is now accepted that the African wild dog is the only living descendant of Xenocyon, and it would make sense that we would move all of these related dogs into the same genus.

I am trying to imagine what Xenocyon may have looked like.  A piece of me sees it as mottled in different colors with rounded ears, as is the case of the African wild dog.

But another part of me sees it as a more robust animal.

Maybe dire wolf crossed with African wild dog is a better way of imagining it.

The African wild dog evolved as a specialized form of Xenocyon that could prey almost exclusively on antelope and other ungulates native to the savannas of Africa.

The robust Xenocyon went extinct, as did all of those possible insular forms, leaving only the specialized Lycaon pictus as a relict of what was once a more diverse line.

The African wild dog is truly a unique species, and to think of its story within this context should increase the urgency to conserve this species.

It’s truly a remarkable animal.


One should note that there are other species that are called African wolves. All of these are members of the genus Canis and are in no way related to African wild dogs or Xenocyon.

The most famous of these is the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which is no longer classified as a jackal. The original molecular genetic studies of this wolf found that it was a descendant of Canis lupus.   A more recent study that they were not actually derived from the wolf, but they were very closely related to both wolves and coyotes.

The golden jackal is more closely related to wolves and coyotes than to the other two species of jackal,  so it could also be called an “African wolf.”

And there are two populations of golden jackal that are quite wolf-like.

One of these is the Egyptian jackal. It may be its own species (Canis lupaster), a subspecies of wolf (Canis lupus lupaster), or part of the golden jackal species (Canis aureus lupaster). It is found in Egypt and Libya, and it looks more like an Arabian or Indian wolf than a golden jackal. Because of this similarity, it was always classified as a type of wolf. Recent MtDNA studies show that it is some form of jackal, but the variance in the MtDNA sequence is pretty high from the closest golden jackal population.

Of course, MtDNA studies can be limited in their scope.

MtDNA is inherited via the mother, and we know that the only hybridization between dogs and wolves and golden jackals is between male dogs and wolves and female jackals. Male jackals just are unable to subdue female dogs or wolves to mate with them.

It could be that there was once a true Egyptian wolf.  Through intense persecution, it was reduced to very small numbers.  Male wolves were unable to find bitch wolves with which to breed, so they mated with female golden jackals.

And that could explain why these wolf-like dogs come out with golden jackal MtDNA.

Or maybe the hybridization happened very long ago with some canid that was closely related to the golden jackal, which would explain why the MtDNA of Egyptian jackals varies so much from Israeli golden jackals.

To make matters more complicated, a similar wolfish jackal has been found in the Danakil in Eritrea. It is called the wucharia, and the people who live there recognize it as something unique from the more common golden jackals that also inhabit the desert.

It may actually be a population of Arabian wolf, or it may be the same species or subspecies as the Egyptian jackal.

Both the Egyptian jackal/wolf and the wucharia could be modern day versions of African wolves. Maybe we should look to them to see where the African wolf population went.

We do know that Canis lupus did invade northern Africa at some point, but no one is sure how far south they got.

Or what happened to them.

When the original molecular genetic study came out on the Ethiopian wolf, it was though that the Ethiopian wolf was last surviving population of African Canis lupus.

I think it is very likely that there were African wolves, but these became extinct. Perhaps due to persecution. Perhaps due to competition with other carnivores.

A few individuals survived in North Africa and maybe in parts of the Horn of Africa, where they interbred with golden jackals or a close relative of that species as their numbers dwindled and these wolf populations became isolated.

Whatever these wolves were, they were likely very closely related to the Middle Eastern subspecies. They were probably the same subspecies that we call the Arabian wolf or maybe the Iranian wolf.

If this is true, then these would have been the first wolves that man encountered.

We now know dogs were first domesticated from Middle Eastern wolves.

However, those Middle Eastern wolves could have been living in North Africa when they first encountered humans.

It is possible.

And worth considering.

But the archaeological evidence shows that the domestication most likely happened in the Middle East, not North Africa.

It’s  still an idea to keep in mind.


Arabian wolves are well-documented in Egypt.

They are found in the Sinai, which is the land bridge that connects Africa and Asia.

If any wolves could live in Africa, they would be something similar to these animals.

They aren’t big.

They really aren’t bad.

They are nothing like Xenocyon lycaonoides— the big, bad African wolf.

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