Posts Tagged ‘black-backed jackals’

kenya black-backed jackal

We think of interactions between predators as always antagonistic.  Meat is hard to come by, and if one comes by meat on the hoof, it is unlikely that the owner-operator of said flesh will give it up willingly.   Meat is a prized food source, and it is little wonder that most predators spend quite a bit of energy driving out competitors from hunting grounds.

Because of this antagonism, the domestication of wolves by ancient hunter-gatherers is difficult to explain. Indeed, the general way of getting wolves associated with people is see them as scavengers that gradually evolved to fear our species less.

This idea is pretty heavily promoted in the dog domestication literature, for it is difficult for experts to see how wolves could have been brought into the human fold any other way.

But there are still writers out there who posit a somewhat different course for dog domestication.  Their main contentions are that scavengers don’t typically endear themselves to those from which they are robbing, and further, the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene did not produce enough waste to maintain a scavenging population of wolves.

It is virtually impossible to recreate the conditions in which some wolves hooked up with people. With the exception of those living on the some the Queen Elizabeth Islands, every extant wolf population has been persecuted heavily by man. Wolves generally avoid people, and there has been a selection pressure through our centuries of heavy hunting for wolves to have extreme fear and reactivity. It is unlikely that the wolves that were first encountered on the Mammoth Steppe were shy and retiring creatures. They would have been like the unpersecuted wolves of Ellesmere, often approaching humans with bold curiosity.

As I have noted in an earlier post, those Ellesmere wolves are an important population that have important clues to how dog domestication might have happened, but the truth of the matter is that no analogous population of wolves or other wild canids exists in which cooperation with humans is a major part of the survival strategy. The wolves on Ellesmere are not fed by anyone, but they don’t rely upon people for anything.

But they are still curious about our species, and their behavior is so tantalizing. Yet it is missing that cooperative analogy that might help us understand more.

I’ve searched the literature for this analogy. I’ve come up short every time. The much-celebrated cooperation between American badgers and coyotes is still quite controversial, and most experts now don’t believe the two species cooperate.  Instead, they think the badger goes digging for ground squirrels, and the coyote stand outside the burrow entrance waiting for the prey to bolt out as the badger’s digging approaches its innermost hiding place in the den. The coyote gets the squirrel, and the badger wastes energy on its digging.

But there is a story that is hard to dispute. It has only been recorded once, but it is so tantalizing that I cannot ignore it.

Randall Eaton observed some rather unusual behavior between black-backed jackals and cheetahs in Nairobi National Park in 1966.

Both of these species do engage in cooperative hunting behavior. Black-backed jackals often work together to hunt gazelles and other small antelope, and they are well-known to work together to kill Cape fur seal pups on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Male cheetahs form coalitions that work together to defend territory and to hunt cooperatively.

However, the two species generally have a hostile relationship. Cheetahs do occasionally prey upon black-backed jackals, and black-backed jackals will often mob a cheetah after it has made a kill, in hopes of forcing the cat to abandon all that meat.

So these animals usually cannot stand each other, and their interactions are not roseate in the least. Eaton described the “normal interaction” as follows:

The normal interaction between these two predators occurs when the jackals hunt in the late afternoon and come into a group of cheetahs. The jackals, often four or five, are normally spread out over several hundred yards and maintain contact by barking as they move. When cheetahs are encountered by one of the jackals, it barks to the others and they all come to the cheetahs, sniffing the air as they approach apparently looking for a kill. If the cheetahs are not on a kill, the jackals search the immediate area looking for a carcass that might have just been left by the cheetahs. If nothing is found, they remain near the cheetahs for some time, following them as they move ; and when a kill is made the jackals feed on the leftover carcass. If the cheetahs have already fed and are inactive and if a carcass is not found nearby, the jackals move on.

However, Eaton discovered that one particular group of jackals and one female cheetah had developed a different strategy:

At the time I was there in November, 1966, one area of the park was often frequented by a female cheetah with four cubs and was also the territory of a pair of jackals with three pups. The jackal young remained at the den while the adults hunted either singly or together. Upon encountering the cheetah family, the jackals approached to about 20 yards and barked but were ignored except for an occasional chase by the cubs. The jackals ran back and forth barking between the cheetahs and a herd of Grant’s gazelles (Gazella granti) feeding nearby. The two jackals had gone on to hunt and were almost out of sight by the time the adult cheetah attacked two male Grant’s gazelles that had grazed away from the herd. The hunt was not successful. The jackals took notice of the chase and returned to look for a kill ; it appeared that they associated food with the presence of the cheetahs and perhaps with the chase.

One month later, while observing the same cheetah family, I noticed that the entire jackal family was hunting as a group. The cheetah and her cubs were about 300 yards from a herd of mixed species. This same herd had earlier spotted the cheetahs and given alarm calls. The adult cheetah was too far away for an attack,there was little or no stalking cover and the herd was aware of her presence. The cheetahs had been lying in the shade for about one-half an hour since the herd spotted them when the jackals arrived. Upon discovering the cheetahs lying under an Acacia tree, one of the adult jackals barked until the others were congregated around the cheetah family. The jackal that had found the cheetahs crawled to within ten feet of the adult cheetah which did not respond. The jackal then stood up and made a very pneumatic sound by forcing air out of the lungs in short staccato bursts. This same jackal turned towards the game herd, ran to it and, upon reaching it, ran back and forth barking. The individuals of the herd watched the jackal intently. The cheetah sat up and watched the herd as soon as it became preoccupied with the activity of the jackal. Then the cheetah quickly got up and ran at half-speed toward the herd, getting to within 100 yards before being seen by the herd. The prey animals then took flight while the cheetah pursued an impala at full speed.

Upon catching the impala and making the kill, the cheetah called to its cubs to come and eat. After the cheetahs had eaten their fill and moved away from the carcass, the waiting jackals then fed on the remains.

Eaton made several observations of this jackal family working with this female cheetah, and by his calculations, the cheetah was twice as successful when the jackals harassed the herds to aid her stalk.

Eaton made note of this behavior and speculated that this sort of cooperative hunting could have been what facilitated dog domestication:

If cheetah and jackal can learn to hunt mutually then it is to be expected that man’s presence for hundreds, of thousands of years in areas with scavenging canines would have led to cooperative hunting between the two. In fact, it is hard to believe otherwise. It is equally possible that it was man who scavenged the canid and thereby established a symbiosis. Perhaps this symbiosis facilitated the learning of effective social hunting by hominids. Selection may have favored just such an inter-specific cooperation.

Agriculture probably ended the importance of hunting as the binding force between man and dog and sponsored the more intensive artificial selection of breeds for various uses. It is possible that until this period men lived closely with canids that in fossil form are indistinguishable from wild stock (Zeuner, 1954).

Domestication may have occurred through both hunting symbiosis and agricultural life; however, a hunting relationship probably led to the first domestication. Fossil evidence may eventually reconstruct behavioral associations between early man and canids.

Wolves are much more social and much more skilled as cooperative hunters than black-backed jackals are. Humans have a complex language and a culture through which techniques and technology can be passed from generation to generation.

So it is possible that a hunting relationship between man and wolf in the Paleolithic could have been maintained over many generations.

The cheetah had no way of teaching her cubs to let the jackals aid their stalks, and one family of jackals is just not enough to create a population of cheetah assistants.

But humans and these unpersecuted Eurasian wolves of the Pleistocene certainly could create these conditions.

I imagine that the earliest wolf-assisted hunts went much like these jackal-cheetah hunts. Wolves are always testing prey to assess weakness. If a large deer species or wild horse is not weak, it will stand and confront the wolves, and in doing so, it would be exposing itself to a spear being thrown in its direction.

If you’ve ever tried a low-carbohydrate diet, you will know that your body will crave fat. Our brains require quite a bit of caloric intake from fat to keep us going, which is one of those very real costs of having such a large brain. Killing ungulates that stood to fight off wolves meant that would target healthy animals in the herds, and healthy animals have more fat for our big brains.

Thus, working together with wolves would give those humans an advantage, and the wolves would be able to get meat with less effort.

So maybe working together with these Ellesmere-like wolves that lived in Eurasia during the Paleolithic made us both more effective predators, and unlike with the cheetah and the black-backed jackals, human intelligence, language, and cultural transmission allowed this cooperation to go on over generations.

Eaton may have stumbled onto the secret of dog domestication. It takes more than the odd population of scavenging canids to lay the foundations for this unusual domestication. Human agency and foresight joined with the simple cooperative nature of the beasts to make it happen.





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dire wolf mesomelas

Yep. This was an April Fools’ prank.

That’s okay. I had one pulled on me last night at the cabin where we were fishing. About 10 o’clock last night, my dad shouts “Oh my God! There is a bear in the trash!”

By the time everyone had rushed to the windows to see– and I had just been roused from slumber– it was soon revealed there was no bear.

Yes, and just as there was no bear, all that was in the post about the dire wolf’s genome being closely allied to black-backed jackals is utter nonsense.

But I have always imagined that this was a possibility, because I think our assumption that dire wolves were very closely related to modern wolves really hasn’t been tested out empirically.  We have some phylogenetic trees drawn from paleontological analysis, but one must be very careful of these studies. Parallel evolution is a very common occurrence in canids, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everything one reads about paleontology and canids needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

So yes, it’s an April Fool, but it is a definite possibility.

Oh, and please don’t hate on my dodgy “photoshop.”

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This is from a documentary about brown hyenas on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, but the black-backed jackals stole the scene here!

They are like piranhas in canid form!

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Kent Hovind is out of prison, and seeing as he has a month of home confinement to waste time on the internet, he has been posting daily Q and A sessions on Youtube. Just e-mail him, and he’ll answer your question on Youtube.

So the other day, I sent him an e-mail with the following question:

Scottie Westfall Jul 22
To (Kent Hovind)
Would you say that black-backed jackals, side-striped jackals, African wild dogs (Cape hunting dogs or painted dogs) and dholes (Asiatic wild dog) are part of the same kind that includes golden jackals, coyotes, wolves/domestic dogs/dingoes, and Ethiopian wolves?

Why would I ask this question?

Well, within the wolf-like canids, it is well-known that some species are still chemically interferitle. We have a nice phylogenetic tree, which was drawn from a sequencing of domestic dog genome:

dog family phylogentic tree

Domestic dogs are basic a type of “grey wolf,” so they certainly do interbreed.  One could make the case in a creationist sense that these animals are all part of the same “kind,” because a “kind” is generalized term that pretty much is based solely on whether they can “bring forth”– produce offspring. Wolves and dogs have interbred and produced fertile offspring with coyotes and golden jackals. Golden jackals and coyotes have done the same. Ethiopian wolves (which are a really specialized canid that is found only in the Ethiopian Highlands) have interbred with domestic dogs, and in some instances, there have been viable, fertile hybrids produced.

By the Biblical definition of kind, these animals fit.

However, interfertility stops with the Ethiopian wolf. Although there are rumors of hybrids being produced between dogs and dholes and between dholes and golden jackals, we have no verified hybrids. There are claims that the Bangkaew dog started out as a dhole/domestic dog hybrid, but I’ve never seen anyone confirm this ancestry in the breed.

When this phylogenetic tree was drawn, it really did change the way we view jackals. When I was a kid, we tended to think of all the jackals as being closely related. We even called the Ethiopian wolf the “Simien jackal.”  But even before this study came out, it was pretty clear that the canid of the Ethiopian Highlands was closer to the wolves than the other endemic African jackals.

But this study revealed that golden jackals are even more closely related to wolves/dogs and coyotes than to the other jackals, and that the two endemic African jackals, the side-striped and black-backed jackals, are actually more distantly related to the interfertile canids than African wild dogs and dholes are. African wild dogs and dholes have traditionally been given their own genus names (Lycaon and Cuon), but those two endemic African jackals have always been listed as part of Canis. We now think of Canis as a paraphyletic grouping, which means it is not a clade. To make it a clade, we would have to move the African wild dog and the dhole into Canis, which is what I would do, or create a new genus for the two endemic African canids.

In an earlier video, Kent Hovind was answering a question about the kinds of animals on the ark, and he said something along the lines of how jackals, wolves, coyotes, and dogs are all descended from a single dog “kind” that was put on the ark.  (In that video, Hovind actually claimed that hyenas were part of the dog kind, which isn’t even close to being true).

But if a “kind” is defined as what can produce offspring, we have a very hard big problem here. When a creationist says “jackal,” I don’t think they understand that the three species of jackal are actually quite distinct from each other. You cannot breed a black-backed jackal to a dog, even if people claim that basenjis are derived from them, or that they have an African village dog that looks like one. The two species are very distinct from one another.

So if these animals all are distinct kinds, then God had Noah put several ancestral Canis-type dogs on the ark.  Black-backed and side-striped jackals probably can interbreed, but their genomes haven’t been studied in the interfertile Canis species have been. So that would be a kind. Dholes and African wild dogs probably can hybridize as well, so that would be another kind. And then you’d have the classic “dog kind, ” which has all the wolf-like species that hybridize a lot.

So we’d have these three separate kinds, but why?

Wouldn’t an intelligent deity just want one dog kind?

I mean, a Western coyote and a black-backed jackal are essentially the same organism in terms of their behavioral ecology. They hunt small animals. They gang up and hunt ungulates, and they do a lot of scavenging. They both have intense pair bonds, and they do cause problems with livestock producers.

Why would there have to be two separate “kinds” for this mid-sized, generalist canid?

Well, Hovind tried to answer my question, and he did very poorly. Now, I must confess that he was answering a bunch of questions about the flat earth and geocentrism (which many of his most devout followers wish he believed in), so I don’t think he was expecting a question like mine or understood its significance.

Here’s his answer (and he thinks my name is Daniel):


He tells me to go look up Baraminology, which I did.

But when I went to Answers in Genesis, I found that they fell into exactly the same trap as Hovind.

They point out that there was a discovery a few years ago that there were some “golden jackals” in Africa that were found to be a primitive lineage of wolf. Now, these are not Ethiopian wolves. People mess this up all the time. These are African wolves (Canis lupus lupaster), and they are actually pretty widespread. Populations of these wolves have been found as far from Ethiopia as Senegal, and they do cross with golden jackals there.

But note that the African wolves are breeding with GOLDEN jackals, and they were being confused with GOLDEN jackals. We know that golden jackals are close to wolves and domestic dogs, and they do hybridize.

One could make the case that golden jackals are part of the same “kind” that includes dogs, coyotes, and wolves, but you cannot say that black-backed and side-striped jackals are part of this same kind. They no more can cross with dogs than they a dog can with a petunia or a guinea pig.

So if you hear a creationist talking about jackals being part of the same “kind” as domestic dogs, just ask them about black-backed and side-striped jackals.

They don’t understand the problem with their reasoning at all.

Nor do they care.


AronRa has a nice video on canid evolution, though I do have few quibbles about it, such as the location of where dogs were domesticated and the size of some borophagine dogs, it gives you a good understanding of the problem when creationists mess around with interfertility in dog species.


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Jackal love


Black-backed jackals are highly monogamous animals.

You can really see how strongly this pair has bonded in this video.

See related post:

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If all it takes for carnivorous animal to become domesticated is for it to scavenge off of people and eventually evolve tolerance towards humans to fit this niche, why didn’t man domesticate the black-backed jackal?

I find this species to be the biggest affront to the Coppinger model, because it is one species that has lived very close to man for tens of thousands of years. For example, analysis of “dog” remains from South Africa’s Western Cape Province that had been dated to the Later Stone Age turned out to be black-backed jackals. These “dogs” were living within hunter-gatherer camps in Southern Africa, but they were not dogs at all. They may have been on their way to becoming semi-domesticated, and jackals would have been great to have around. Leopards are known to stalk both people and jackals, and the jackals would have given an alarm call whenever they scented a leopard nearby.

Traditional accounts of dog domestication say that this is all you need.

But black-backed jackals do this very well, and they likely have been doing it longer than any other species of wild dog.

But no one has domesticated the black-backed jackal.

I think Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a dog writer and anthropologist, who wrote The Hidden Life of Dogs, a book that is often misrepresented in the popular culture by those who haven’t read it. She often gets attacked for saying that dogs “marry,” but she did indeed have two Siberian huskies that formed a pair bond and were monogamous. When the male of the pair was given away, the female became open to suitors, which is exactly how wolves reproduce. Most wolves form monogamous pairs because it is much easier to rear puppies in this fashion, but there are always Casanova male wolves that come in and try to mate with females that aren’t part of pair bond.  When these bitches give birth, the pups usually die because their mothers don’t have access to the pack’s dens and regular nutrition.  However, in Yellowstone, these bitches have managed to rear their litters, creating super packs once the pups mature. All that dogs have done is adopt that model of reproduction. But it doesn’t mean that they are incapable of forming pair bonds.

Now, in her second book, The Social Lives of Dogs. examines human behavior more closely. In her first dog book, the work examines how her dogs relate to each other, but in this book, she examines how her dogs relate to humans, cats, and parrots, which all live in her house. Part of her book was in response to Coppinger’s work, which lays out a domestication theory that has the elements listed above.

But she had grown up rather unusually. As I mentioned, she is a trained anthropologist. Her mother, Lorna Marshall, was an anthropologist who wrote the first ethnography of the !Kung people of the Kalahari.  The whole family lived with the !Kung for parts of nearly two decades. (!Kung are a Bushmen people. The ! represents the click sound you are supposed to make before saying the K in “Kung.”)

It is from this perspective that she examines how dog domestication could have happened, using the relationship between the Bushmen and the black-backed jackals as a very good analogy for how dog domestication happened.


Using an entirely different methodology from Mark Derr, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas realized that domestication could not happen from scavenging and alarm-sounding canids alone.

There has to be some room for cooperative in the domestication theory.

Black-backed jackals do hunt cooperatively. They are somewhat aggressive with each other– but so are Jack Russell terriers. And Jack Russells have been used to hunt everything from rats to wild boar to black bears.

For this reason I reject the notion that black-backed jackals were not domesticated because they were more aggressive with their social partners.  Many domestic dog breeds, including virtually all terriers, have been selected for their scrappy dispositions. It’s well-known never to let more than two intact male terriers of certain breeds run around loose together in a backyard. You are simply asking for trouble.

I think that Thomas got the real reason why they weren’t domesticated.

They simply had no interest in socializing with people or hunting the same prey as people.

Socialized wolves definitely would have been interested in going on long hunts in ways that these jackals simply were not. And still aren’t.

We have had ample opportunity to domesticate this species, which lives in roughly the same areas where our species first evolved.  This is likely the first species in the genus Canis with which we had contact. It has proven to be very adept at living near people and scavenging off of them.

But none has developed spots or floppy ears.

None has become a dog.


Contrary to popular belief, black-backed jackals play no role in dog domestication. There are no black-backed jackal/dog hybrids. Black-backed jackals are more distantly related to the domestic dog than the dhole and African wild dog are, and there have been no confirmed hybrids between dholes and domestic dogs or African wild dogs and domestic dogs. (Although the Bangkaew dog is said to be part dhole, I would like to see the DNA evidence).



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Cape black-backed jackal

So just for the record, I will admit that I am wrong about the existence of black-backed jackal dog hybrids, if someone can provide me a link to a study or record of a hybrid that has some form of DNA evidence– either a mitochondrial DNA or a y chromosome analysis will suffice. I will also accept any nuclear DNA studies of African dogs that find evidence of crossing with either of these jackals.

If someone can find the same evidence for a side-striped jackal and dog hybrid,  I will also admit that the African-only jackals can hybridize with dogs.

Side striped jackal

I’ve heard it claimed that these two jackals will cross with dogs or wolves or some other variant of Canis lupus, but I’ve never read of record of them breeding in any nineteenth century menagerie.

Hybrid in the genus Canis have occurred between all things that are currently part of Canis lupus, including the red wolf (whatever it is), Ethiopian wolves (which are not technically jackals), golden jackals, and the coyote. Verified hybrids have been found with all of these animals.

As far as I know and as far as I’ve looked, the two Africa-only jackals have not hybridized with any of these animals.

That’s probably because they are the two oldest species of true dog (tribe Canini) that are still in existence today.

And they are more genetically distant from domestic dogs than dholes and African wild dogs are– and we all know that neither of those can hybridize with domestic dogs.

Indian pariah dogs have been seen running with dhole packs, but no one has ever reported a dhole-dog.

I guess I’ve made a zoological challenge.

I’d like to see real evidence of a hybrid between a dog and one of these jackals.

All I have received in the past have been photographs and someone saying these are jackal-dogs.

However, as we know, one can easily find dogs with virtually any phenotype in any randomly breeding population.

It does not mean that these dogs have jackal in them.  German shepherds are more closely related to mastiffs than they are to wolves, but it is still widely claimed that they are derived from wolf hybrids.

I stand by what I say about these two jackals interbreeding with dogs.

But if someone can provide me some kind of DNA proof that a hybrid exists between a dog and either of these two jackals, then I will accept the correction.

The black-backed jackal really varies in terms of its mitochondrial DNA from all the other species of jackal, including the side-striped jackal, its closest relative.

I don’t think we have a very good grasp on how unique the black-backed jackal actually is.

It superficially looks like a small coyote or golden jackal with a grizzled blanket on its back.

It’s not.

It’s very unique.

I have called them the closest thing to naturally occurring Jack Russell Terriers, because they are very scrappy with each other. The Southern African or Cape black-backed jackals are typically just a little bit bigger than a terrier.


BTW, in a future post, I will make the case that the two subpopulations of black-backed jackal might be separate species.

I’m not going to do that here.

I don’t know if anyone has looked into this possibility from a genetic standpoint, but in terms of phenotype and behavior, the East African and Cape subspecies are quite different from one another– and probably have been separated for a long time.


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