Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopian wolf’

We spend a lot of time debating about how wolves became dogs. A huge debate exists in the archaeological and paleontological literature about how one can determine whether the remains of a canid represent a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form between wolves and dogs. This debate is why the oldest dog remains are dated to around 14,000 years ago and come from the Bonn-Oberkassel site. Anything older than that, a big debate exists among experts about what can be used to define a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form.

But this debate does not exist solely in relatively recent transition between wolves and dogs. The entire evolution of Canis lupus is a hotly contested and often contradictory, depending upon which source one reads and whether one is looking a source that relies upon paleontological and morphological analysis or one that looks at the molecular evolution of the species.

It is well-accepted in European paleontology that Canis lupus evolved from Canis mosbachensis. Mark Derr paid particular attention to this evolution in his How the Dog Became the Dog. He posits that the extinction of the large hunting dog, Xenocyon lycaonoides, created an ecological niche that could be filled by the Mosbach wolf evolving into the gray wolf.

Yes, the Mosbach wolf was smaller than the modern gray wolf. Individuals from Northwestern Europe were mostly about the size of a modern Indian wolf or a “red wolf.” Indeed, the similarities between some of these mosbachensis wolves and red wolves are the best evidence for a unique red wolf species, for one can argue that red wolves are just a relict form of the Mosbach wolf that held on in Eastern North America. Of course, the genetic data do not agree with this assertion, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless.

My reading is that the Mosbach wolf gave rise to Canis lupus in Eurasia between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. The coyote, though often posited as a primitive Canis, is actually derived from a divergent form of Canis lupus that got marooned in the American Southwest some 50,000 years ago and evolved to fit a jackal-like niche on a continent already dominated by dire wolves.

The Mosbach wolf disappeared from the fossil record around 300,000 years ago, but there is always a debate as to the possibility that it held on longer. The red wolf and Indian wolf are certainly possibilities for its continued existence today, but as we’ve looked at more wolf genomes both of those don’t come out so distinctive. Every study that I’ve seen that uses Indian wolf genomes finds that they are divergent Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a cross between wolves that are of that coyote type and relict Southeastern gray wolves from a later invasion of the continent. I do think there is pretty good historical data that some smaller wolves that we would define as coyotes lived in the Eastern states at the time of contact, particularly the small brown wolf of Pennsylvania mentioned by Shoemaker and the small “wolues” of Jamestown mentioned by John Smith. My guess is that no one really took stock of what they were killing when they killed off the wolves of Eastern states. It is very possible that coyote-like wolves were killed off in great numbers along with the big ones, and later on, coyotes from the plains came East, crossing with wolves and even relict original Eastern coyotes to form the modern Eastern coyote. The red wolf and the larger Eastern coyote are thus recreations of the Mosbach wolf that have happened in modern times.

In Europe, one potential late surviving Mosbach wolf was thought to have been found in Apulia, Italy, at the Grotta Romanelli site. Wolf remains have been found in the cave that date to between 40,000 and 69,000 years ago and they were often described as belonging to a late surviving Mosbach wolf. A recent morphological analysis revealed that these remains were of a peculiar form of Canis lupus that lived in that part of Southern Italy, and they were not of any kind of Mosbach wolf.

However, the Mosbach wolf is particularly intriguing. Occasionally, it has been posited as a direct ancestor of the domestic dog, but because we don’t have an overlap between the signs of the earliest dog domestication and the existence of Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record, one should be very careful in making such an assertion.

This same caveat should be placed when one sees Canis variabilis posited as dog ancestor. For one thing, there is no such thing as Canis variabilis. Instead, all the specimens listed as this species that come from the Zhoukoudian site in China have now been reassigned to Canis mosbachensis. This reassignment posits them as Canis mosbachensis variabilis, so whenever one encounters that “Canis variabilis” in a paper, just remember that they are discussing a particular East Asian form of the Mosbach wolf.

From my own speculative meta-analysis, it seems that the Mosbach wolf is ancestral to the entire wolf/dog/coyote species complex, which may include the African golden wolf, and the Eurasian golden jackal. A genome comparison study that included dogs, wolves, and one Israeli Eurasian golden jackal found that the divergence between the golden jackal and the dog and wolf species happened just before the anatomically modern Canis lupus replaced Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record. The Eurasian golden jackal could potentially be derived from a diminutive form of Canis mosbachensis that moved toward a more generalist scavenger form.

We also have some evidence of small Mosbach wolves in Europe that could have potentially gone in the direction of the golden jackal. This specimen was found not far from the Grotta Romanelli wolf that were found to be anatomically modern and not Mosbach wolves. It was found at the Contrada Monticelli site in Apulia. It was unusual in that it was quite a bit smaller than the Mosbach wolves found in other parts of Europe, and the authors found that Mosbach wolves were as morphologically variable as modern wolves are.

In North Africa, we also have a recent discovery of a canid that was much like the Mosbach wolf. The authors thought it was a bit different from the Eurasian form, and they decided to call this species Canis othmanii. This African wolf-like canid was found at a site in Tunisia and dates to the Middle Pleistocene, and it could potentially be the basal gray wolf that hybridized with the Ethiopian wolf to make the African golden wolf. More work needs to be done on this specimen, for it very well could wind up like Canis variabilis, a regionally distinct form of the Mosbach wolf.

The really fuzzy part about Canis mosbachensis isn’t that it is the ancestor of the gray wolf. The educated speculations I make about its relationship to the golden jackal and the golden wolf could be debated, and we need lots more data to figure out if I am right or not.

The really fuzzy part is what came before the Mosbach wolf. Most scholars think that Etruscan wolf (Canis etruscus), which makes an appearance in the fossil record around 2 million years ago, is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. For years, there was a debate about whether the Mosbach wolf was a chrono-subspecies of the Etruscan wolf or a chrono-subspecies of the gray wolf. All these suggestions would be technically true, simply because we could regard the Etruscan wolf-Mosbach wolf-gray wolf as a species that lasted and evolved over this time period.

However, a bit of a debate now exists as to whether the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. An extensive morphological analysis of Etruscan wolf remains and those of another Canis species called Canis arnensis, which compared both to the modern black-backed jackal, the gray wolf, the golden jackal, and the golden wolf, found that our previous delineation between arnensis as being jackal-like and etruscus as being wolf-like were over-simplifications. Some characters of arnensis are much more like modern gray wolves than etruscus is, and it is possible that arnesis gave rise to the Mosbach wolf. Still, the bulk of scholarship thinks that the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf.

However, because the Mosbach wolf was not included in the analysis, it might be difficult to make such a conclusion. However, maybe the Etruscan wolf or something like it is the ancestor of the Ethiopian wolf. The ancestral Ethiopian wolf must have had an extensive range in Northern Africa for it to have hybridized with Canis mosbachensis, Canis othmanii, or a basal modern gray wolf to form the African golden wolf.

I have focused most of this post on the origins of gray wolves in the Old World, but the first Canis species to evolve were found in North America. Canis lepophagus first appeared in the fossil record 5 million years ago. It was very similar to a coyote or a Canis arnensis of the Old World. This is the part of the story where the molecular data has largely shaken up what we used to believe about coyotes. Lepophagus is thought to have evolved into the larger Edward’s wolf (Canis edwardii), which is sometimes called Canis priscolatrans. These animals might have been the same species or very closely related to the Etruscan wolf. The modern coyote is thought to have derived from edwardii/priscolatrans/estrucus 1 million years ago, but genome-wide comparisons put the existence of most recent common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes at less than 51,000 years ago.

The dire wolf derived from Armbruster’s wolf (Canis armbrusteri). Armbruster’s wolf derived from Canis edwardii/priscolatrans/etruscus 1.8 million years ago. The dire wolf then evolved from that species 125,000 years ago, which means the dire wolf’s most recent common ancestor with modern wolves and the coyote may have been as far back as 2 or even 3 million years ago.

This analysis is still being worked out. The molecular data is constantly throwing wrenches into the machinery of paleontology, especially the paleontology of canids. The most successful extant canid lineage are full of parallel evolution and phenotypic plasticity, and in this way, it has become quite a challenge to sort out the evolutionary history of these species. At various times, large wolf-like forms have evolved as have smaller coyote or jackal-like forms.

The story of Canis starts with a coyote-like lepophagus, but right now, its likely niche is adopted by the modern coyote, which also very similar to it. But the molecular data suggest that the coyote evolved to adopt this similar niche from a larger Eurasian gray wolf and that it did not directly descend from lepophagus over 5 million years in only North America. Instead, it evolved into wolves that wandered into Eurasia, becoming the Mosbach wolf and then anatomically modern gray wolf. Some of these wolves wandered back into North America and became generalist scavengers in the land of the dire wolf.

Very similar stories likely are lost to us, but we must understand that the history of wolves is not just about getting bigger and developing pack-hunting behavior. That is one part of the story, but another part is about evolving to fit niches, which sometimes means evolving a smaller size and more generalist diet.

Some of my ideas here are very speculative, but I think they are nested in my reading of the available literature. Do not assume that I have the final story of how these creatures evolved, but just understand that the molecular side is so rarely considered in paleontology literature that it is almost like we’re reading evolutionary history of two different lineages.

More work must be done to formulate a synthesis between these two disciplines. Otherwise, there will be continued conflict, and the one using an older methodology and often working with much more incomplete data-set will fall by the wayside. And that is not the one using full genomes.

If we know what problems exist using morphological studies on extant and recently extinct canids, it is very likely that we’re missing important data on many extinct species, one for which there is no DNA to test.

Still, paleontology has much to tell us about the way early wolves lived. It can tell us much about how the ecosystems were and why wolves evolved in the way they did. But its methodologies often miss relationships between extant forms and miss the tendency toward parallel evolution.

I tried for about two years to watch Joe Rogan’s interview with Dan Flores, who wrote a book on coyotes that I think is quite full of misunderstandings about canid taxonomy. When Rogan questioned him about the papers that show a recent origin for the red wolf, Flores pretty much just dismissed those papers because they didn’t look at fossil.

That’s not how it works. Within canids, we know that parallel evolution is a big thing, and it is very possible that coyote-like and red wolf-like canids have evolved more than once on this continent. Indeed, a careful reading of the paleontology and molecular data strongly suggests that this is the case.

In fact, it has always been the case with these wolf-like canids. Big ones evolved from small ones, but sometimes, the big ones become small, because it is a better fit for survival.

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When I was a kid, Nature on PBS had a documentary about Simien jackals in the Ethiopian Highland. I remember being so fascinated by these jackals, particularly how they lived in extended family groups centered around a breeding pair. Even then, I marveled at how these animals had such a similar social structure to wolves, and my childish speculations made me wonder if these jackals could have told us how pack behavior in wolves first evolved.

But I grew up in an era before the internet, and I didn’t spend time looking at Simien jackals until I was in undergrad. I was at an old Borders bookstore, which don’t exist anymore, and I picked up a guide to African mammals. I perused my way to the canid section, hoping to find the section on bat-eared foxes. I had just read a book that documented the touching paternal behavior of this species, and I wanted to see if the guide mentioned this behavior. As I flipped through the pages, I came across the photo of the Simien jackal, but the caption under it said “Ethiopian wolf.”

I was somewhat confused by this new designation, so I read through entry on this new “wolf.”  The entry elucidated that some new DNA studies had found that the Simien jackal was found to be much more closely related to wolves than to other jackals in Africa, and the new name reflected this genetic discovery.

At the time, I was much more science illiterate than I am now, and I began to wonder if wolves had truly lived throughout Africa during the Pleistocene. Maybe these wolves were the source of the domestic dog, because we humans were a truly African species.

Later on, more studies came out.  Lots of papers suggested that some North African golden jackals were some kind of relict form of wolf in Africa, but most strongly suggested that there still were golden jackals in Africa. It was only 2015, that more in depth analysis of golden jackal, wolf, and coyote DNA revealed that all golden jackals in Africa were actually derived from a gray wolf-like ancestor. The current move it to call these animals African wolves or golden wolves, but a huge debate exists on what the exact scientific name should be: Canis lupus lupaster? Canis lupaster? Canis anthus?

I remain agnostic on what the exact scientific name for the golden wolf should be. I need more evidence, more data, before I’m going to latch  onto something. All of these problems are greatly complicated by the discovery that coyotes and gray wolves are much more closely related to each other than we thought, and the proposed million-year split between the two species was often used to gauge when the rest of the genus diverged.  These animals might all be much more closely related to each other than we imagined. 

But an even more surprising discovery just came out.  A recent genome comparison study revealed that hybridization was a major part of the evolution of wolf-like canids, but it also revealed that the golden wolf was itself a hybrid between Ethiopian wolf and the gray wolf. The authors did not estimate when this hybridization happened, but it clearly did.

This discovery points to this possible story about the Ethiopian wolf. Ethiopian wolves and gray wolves are not in any way sympatric. When the Ethiopian wolf was thought to be the only wolf in Africa, it was marveled at how a wolf managed to hold on in Africa, holding onto the last remaining cold parts of East Africa in the Ethiopian Highlands.

But if the golden wolf is really a hybrid between the gray wolf and the Ethiopian wolf, the Ethiopian wolf must have had a wider range. I bet it was even more generalist in its predation habits to have had such a wide range than the current rodent-filled diet of its surviving population. 

And then at some point, gray wolves began to wander down into Africa. These were probably primitive forms of the species, perhaps explaining why Himalayan wolves, a supposed basal form of gray wolf, share an x-chromosome with the golden wolf.

These gray wolves swamped the Ethiopian wolf range in North and East Africa, mating with the Ethiopian wolf.  This African gray wolf evolved to become smaller and more generalist, much like a jackal, but in the main, it retained a hybrid genome that is 72 percent gray wolf and 28 percent Ethiopian wolf.

For whatever reason, the gray wolf and the hybrid golden wolf never spread into the Ethiopian Highlands, where the Ethiopian wolf remained as relatively pure species.  These Ethiopian Highlands wolves had adapted to a rodent-rich diet in some of the harshest terrain in Africa, and there, they live on a relics from a time that has since passed.

They are like the last woolly mammoths of Wrangel and St. Paul Islands. The woolly mammoth of North America and Eurasia went extinct 10,000, but the ones on these two islands held on for much longer. The one on St. Paul went extinct 5,600 years ago, while the Wrangel Island population went extinct around 4,000 years ago. The St. Paul population went extinct as the lake on the island failed to provide them enough water, while the Wrangel population suffered a damaging blow when a deleterious mutation, which caused the mammoths to develop coats much like “satin” rabbits in which the coat grew shiny but less dense and useful for protection against the element, spread throughout the very inbred population.

By the time those mammoths went extinct, human civilizations were already well-advanced. We were already moving well into the agrarian epoch of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and we ceasing to be creatures of nature and becoming what we think we now are.

If the mammoths of Wrangel had never developed that deleterious mutation, we might be able to see them today, just as we can with the Ethiopian wolf.

Ethiopia today promotes the Ethiopian wolf as a major attraction in ecotourism. The country is doing all it can to preserve the species, and it very well be saved, so long as diseases from domestic dogs are held at bay and inbreeding issues don’t result the gene pool becoming swamped with a deleterious mutation or just general inbreeding depression.

No Ethiopian wolf will ever be on display at a Western zoo. You have to go to Ethiopia to see one. They hold onto this precious relic and treasure it as a vital natural resource and national treasure.

And that is how an endangered species should be treated. 

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Ethiopian wolf hunting strategies

From the BBC’s The Hunt:


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The scent of canid estrus wafts out of the clouds of the Harenna Forest in Ethiopia’s Bale National Park. It floats out of the wet jungle into the land of lichens that lies way up high in the Sanetti Plateau, where he smells it.

He stops to savor the scent, which is almost like that of his mother and sisters but not exactly.

Yet is strangely beguiling.

His kind are the red-coated “wolves” of the Ethiopian Highlands. They are Africa’s rarest canid and may be the rarest of all wild dogs. They spend their days hunting big-headed mole-rats and other rodents. They are rare and found only in these Afro-Alpine lands of Ethiopia.

His kind stay in the open moorland of lichens. They don’t wander down in the cloud forest. That is the realm of the black leopard, the creature that savors the taste of dog-flesh above all others and would love nothing more than to swipe an arrogant little tawny wolf.

But the smell is strong, and the last few months have been hectic in his pack. The bitches have all come in estrus, and his mother ran off his older sisters. By the law of Ethiopian wolves, only one bitch produces a litter and that one bitch is the sole mate of a single male.

Thus, our wolf friend has spent a long time smelling the beguiling fragrance of estrus but never getting a chance to partake in any mating.

This smell isn’t quite the same, but it’s so similar that he can’t help be drawn to it.

He abandons his caution and wanders down into the clouds. He soon finds himself in the wet jungle of the Harenna Forest. Moss lies hard upon the trees.Strange little monkeys chatter among the bamboo.

And the scent grows stronger.

He keeps following his canine  concupiscence through this strange world. For a creature so devoted to living in the open moorland, this jungle is a terrifying alien landscape. The buzzing of insect causes him to jump. The gentle falling rain upon the leaves vexes him.

Hunger soon begins set in, but just as he’s about to turn around and head home, he catches wind of some decaying meat.

He follows his nose and soon finds himself looking at the remains of a bushbuck. He also smells the odor of a cat of some sort, but it has long since passed. But smells another odor. It almost like that of his own kind but not quite.

He is in the land of strange wolves, and his hackles are raised.

He knows he might have to fight for a bit of food, but he doesn’t know who these strangers are.

He eats a bit of the meat and raises his head to scan the undergrowth. He must eat, yet he is terrified.

He hears the approach of canine steps. He bristles. The time for a fight is now!

Then the beguiling scent of estrus fills the air. The hackles go down. He doesn’t consciously realize that he’s becoming softened.

The sound of canine steps grows stronger. They stop. Then they grow stronger again.

Then out from behind a stand of kokisa trees comes the creature. Our wolf notices that this is source of the beguiling estrus odor, and though he was expecting a strange Ethiopian wolf from another pack, she not one.

But in some ways she is.

She is almost entirely gray with black hairs mixed in. Along the sides of her back the pelt mixes in such a way as to form two stripes, each running from her shoulder to her hip. Her tail is tipped in white.

She is a side-striped jackal.  Her kind is numerous. They are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara and the Sahel. They are creatures of the brush and thicket. Their kind almost never makes it onto nature documentaries.

They are that banal, that common, that no one would would waste time filming a den-site or extolling their virtues.

Our two creatures stare at each other over the bushbuck carrion. Neither knows what to make of the other. 3 or 4 million years of evolution separate the two species. One is a specialist of an ecosystem that is dying. The other is a generalist of tropical Africa.

But the genetic difference between the two is trivial at this moment.

The young jackal bitch has been driven from her parents’ territory.  She is too defiant of her mother over the kills they scavenge, and her mother just can’t handle such recalcitrance. Estrus made the situation worse, for in jackal society, only one bitch and one dog mate and have the pups. Her sister accepted her mother’s edicts that only she would mother pups, but our jackal bitch fought back and tried to mate with her brother and then her father.

One big fight ensued, and now our jackal bitch is running through the forests, alone and in estrus. She has no territory, and no other dog jackals from other families have courted her.

Her desire to mate is strong now.  And though she’s has been eating off this old leopard kill– one that the old leopard decided wasn’t worth hauling up into the trees– she hasn’t been herself at all.

On her old leopard kill stands a jackal of sorts. He’s bigger than any jackal she’s seen before. He smells different, but he also smells good.

Part of her says to approach. Part of her says to flee. The former is pushing her forward, and as the wolf’s face begins to soften, she feels at ease.

She approaches the red stranger. They touch noses. She backs off.  He wolf-grins. She pounces at him playfully. He backs off. They stare at each other again.

The ritual goes on for an hour. They begin to forget what they are. The strangeness of the moment becomes an odd sort of familiarly.

She licks his lips. He licks hers.  He stands proudly with his ears back. She playfully paws him.

They smell each other.

She spins around and puts her tail to the side. He mounts. There is a tie.

For three days the eat from the bushbuck carcass and mate in the jungle. She alerts him to the scent of the leopard and shows him how much fun it is to chase monkeys into the trees.

On the evening of the third day, the young wolf stoops to drink from a puddle. The black leopard springs from behind a bush and is on the wolf before he knows it. The leopard doesn’t know that he has killed a rare wild dog. He’s caught a big jackal, and jackal meat is so tasty that he has to take it up into the canopy for storage.

The jackal bitch goes looking for her mate. She barks and howls into the night. There is no answer.

An old male side-striped jackal who hasn’t had a mate for year finds her. She still smells of estrus, so she is accepted by him. The two jackals wander off into the darkness. They mate one time, but the two remain together as mates. Within her grow the whelps, one of which is sired by the old male jackal, and the other is the hybrid with the Ethiopian wolf suitor.

The pups are born in the den she digs. One pup is a typical side-striped jackal, while the other is marked with tan points and a black tail with no white tip. The hybrid grows up as a jackal, though she is clearly different.

One day, a group of researchers comes across her and takes her photograph. Then they take many photos.

She is so strange that the researchers believe she is new species of jackal. When her photos are posted online, a lot of debate develops about what she is. Is a new species?  Is she a hybrid of golden jackal (now a golden wolf) and side-striped jackal?  Is she a  hybrid of Ethiopian wolf and dog?  Ethiopian wolf and side-striped jackal?  Nah. She’s an unusual side-striped jackal without the stripes or the white-tail tip.

And the mystery jackal roams the Harenna Forest. The debate goes on.

This is the story of a hybrid.


The above is an entirely fictitious account of what might have happened to produce the unusual jackal in the photograph above. The current consensus— based upon looking at the many photos taken of the creature– is that she is an unusual side-striped jackal.

The truth is this debate really can’t be settled definitely. We have no DNA samples from the beast.

But the possibility of other hybrids beyond the usual subjects in the genus Canis has long fascinated me. It could happen. It just hasn’t been confirmed anywhere.

Although the likelihood of this hybridization occurring is pretty low, it is very likely that the two jackals endemic to Africa, the side-striped and black-backed jackals, can hybridize. The two species usually fight with each other, but there could be instances where they have crossed.

We just don’t have as many genetic studies on these jackals as we do with wolves, dogs, and coyotes.

But I bet there are some interesting stories in the genetic history of these canids.

They just have to be explored a bit more thoroughly.

Jackals are a mystery waiting to be solved.




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Taxidermy taxonomy fail

ethiopian wolf taxidermy

This taxidermy was being sold as a dingo:

We rarely come across dingo taxidermy mounts and are proud to carry great specimens at a great price. The dingo is a free-roaming dog mainly found on the continent of Australia. The dingo has several names in both scientific and non-scientific literature, like of which the word “dingo” is the most common term, but also include “dingoe” and “wild dog”. Who do you know that has a Dingo? Want one? Sign up for our Wish List!

The big problem is that this specimen is not a dingo!

In fact, it’s something even rarer than a dingo, which is a feral domestic dog.

It is an Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which is a critically endangered canid that is found in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Because it’s such an endangered species,  the legality of selling such a specimen is certainly suspect, and it’s certainly worth a lot more than an old dingo mount.

But this isn’t the first taxidermy taxonomy fail I’ve covered on this blog. A few years ago, I went after an ad that was selling a gray fox taxidermy as a kit fox.

One would think that people who deal with these sorts of specimens would have an idea about the exact identity of the creatures that it is selling.

But I guess not.




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From the BBC:

Populations of the world’s rarest dog, the Ethiopian wolf, are genetically fragmenting, scientists say.

Fewer than 500 of Africa’s only wolf species are thought to survive.

Now a 12-year study of Ethiopian wolves living in the Ethiopian highlands has found there is little gene flow between the small remaining populations.

That places the wolves at greater risk of extinction from disease, or habitat degradation.

In a study published in the journal Animal Conservation, Dada Gottelli of the Zoological Society of London and colleagues in Oxford, UK and Berlin, Germany, quantified the genetic diversity, population structure and patterns of gene flow among 72 wild-living Ethiopian wolves.

The team sampled wolves living within six of the remaining seven remnant populations, as well as from one population at Mount Choke, that has since become extinct.

They found that genetic diversity was relatively high for a species that has declined to fewer than 500 individuals.

That may be because discrete populations of wolves survived in Africa after the last glaciation period, which ended 18,000 years ago, and a number of rare gene types became fixed and maintained in these separate groups.

However, this isolation is now working against the wolves.

Researchers studied gene types at 14 separate locations on the wolf genome. They found that there is now weak gene flow between the Ethiopian wolf groups.

There is very little that actually can be done to save Ethiopian wolves. If Ethiopia would create massive corridors between wolf populations, they might stand a chance.

However, this species is unusually habitat specific. They may have once been quite wide-ranging over Ethiopia, and they once may have had a more eclectic diet.

But the only populations that remain are in the Ethiopian Highlands, and these animals live almost entirely on rodents.

Unlike any other Canis species, this one has become specialized to a particular habitat, and this habitat is simply not fairing very well with climate change.

Now, this is an intelligent animal, and they might be able to adapt to a more diverse diet and to a different habitat.

But “might” doesn’t mean that they are.

And thus far, they have not shown any signs of adapting their diet or moving into different habitats. And in this case, they’re probably screwed.

These canids have maintained their genetic diversity because they reproduce via a pair bond, and they have inbreeding avoidance behaviors.

This may also explain why some Ethiopian wolves will try to mate with domestic dogs. They need new blood, and they’ll take it even from a domestic animal.

But the hybrids have been culled from the Ethiopian wolf population, probably unwisely. After all, both common wolves and coyotes have been found to have some domestic dog ancestry, and dog genes have not destroyed the wolf or coyote populations.

It’s also likely that Ethiopian wolves have always had some introgression of dog genes. After all, there was a very flawed mtDNA study that suggested that Ethiopian wolves evolved from common wolf ancestors 100,000. A more comprehensive DNA study found that they actually diverged from the other interfertile Canis 3-4 million years ago. That mtDNA study is why we call them “Ethiopian wolves” today, even though they are actually more genetically distinct from common wolves than golden jackals are.

I don’t have much hope for the Ethiopian wolf.

They are an interesting offshoot of the Canis lineage.

Who knows what these animals were like when they were once more widespread in Ethiopia?

They had to have been much more adaptable than they are now.

The common wolf is nothing like this animal.  From the swamps of Florida to the frozen wastes of Greenland and from the searing sands of Arabia to the Russian taiga, the common wolf has adapted to a wide array of habitats and prey species.


The common wolf is actually succeeding as a species. It is very unlikely that it will go extinct now..

But its cousin in Ethiopia, which has gone the route of specialization, is probably not going to make it.

Now, they might be able to maintain themselves as inbred population, but seeing as the species has retained quite a bit of diversity even though they are now rare, the species probably hasn’t evolved much inbreeding tolerance.

So they may not last if they have to continue through inbreeding.


I have some little quibbles with the BBC piece. I mentioned one of them earlier.

The claim that Ethiopian wolves evolved recently from the common wolf is supported only through mitochondrial DNA studies, which are not the best tool for determining when species split from each other.

The other is the claim that common wolves and red foxes are habitat specific. They aren’t at all. Wolves in the New World were found from the swamps of Florida to Alaska and from the Valley of Mexico to Greenland. In the Old World, they were found from Senegal to Ethiopia and across the Middle East to India and Burma. They were found throughout Asia and all of Europe, including Ireland and Great Britain.

That’s not a habitat specific animal at all.

And red foxes are even less so. They are currently the most widespread of all wild carnivorans.

Finally, the claim that wolves don’t disperse far from their natal packs is not supported by the evidence. Wolves have been found traveling hundreds of miles from the packs in which they were born in search of new territory.

Ethiopian wolves may not exhibit this behavior, simply because they have become so specialized to the Ethiopian Highlands habitat.

And this area is quite finite.

And if the ecosystem of the Ethiopian Highlands continues to degrade due to overgrazing and climate change, they are fairly vulnerable.

And they likely won’t last long.





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A side-striped jackal (Canis adustus), the jackal no one talks about.

We’ve always called the smaller wild dogs in the genus Canis jackals.

Historically, there were four species of jackal:  the golden (Canis aureus), the black-backed (Canis mesomelas), the side-striped (Canis adustus), and the Simien (Canis simensis).

Some authorities considered they coyote (Canis latrans) to be a jackal, usually called “the American jackal.”

At one time, they were all placed in the genus Thous.

This, of course, assumed that these animals were all closely related to each other.

However, as we’ve looked at DNA analysis, the relationship between jackals shows that the term “jackal” is actually quite meaningless.

In 1994, an mtDNA study revealed that the Simien jackal had certain mtDNA sequences that were more similar to wolves than other jackals. It was thought to be a relict population of primitive wolves that came into Africa during the Pleistocene.

And from that time forth, the English name of this species was change to “Ethiopian wolf.”  I don’t call it anything else.

However, as more work was performed on jackals, certain facts became evident.

Initial studies of black-backed, side-striped, and golden jackal mtDNA revealed that black-backs in East Africa had huge variances in their mtDNA. Golden jackals had mtDNA that was most similar to coyotes and wolves, while black backs and side-stripes were more similar to each other.

And then the phylogeny of the dog family was drawn from a high-quality sequencing of the dog genome revealed that golden jackals were much more closely related to coyotes and the wolf and domestic dog species than the Ethiopian wolf was. We still call them Ethiopian wolves, even though golden jackals are more closely related to actual wolves than those animals are.

The other issue revealed through this research was that Canis, as it is traditionally classified, is a paraphyletic genus. Modern taxonomy is generally concerned with classifying animals according clades. Clades are, by definition monophyletic. That is, they contain all the animals that descend from a particular lineage.

The dog genome research revealed that two species that are never traditionally classified as being part of Canis, the African wild (Lycaon pictus) and the dhole (Cuon alpinus), actually should be included there.  It turns out that black-backed and side-striped jackals are more distantly related to the rest of Canis than these two species are.

And if we classify Canis with all the jackals, the Ethiopian wolf, and  the wolf and dog species and leave out the dhole and African wild dog, we’ve created a paraphyletic genus that is not useful to modern taxonomy.

Some have suggested giving the two endemic African jackals their own genus.

And this would make Canis monophyletic without including the African wild dog and dhole.

However, the genus that would remain would include several species that are all chemically interfertile with each other (at least in theory). Species complexes exist throughout that part of the Canis, and delineating species is very difficult the species in this lineage.

Although Robert Wayne at UCLA has suggested that black-backed and side-striped jackals might be able to interbreed, no one has confirmed a hybrid between these two species. African wild dogs might be able to hybridize with dholes, but because they live on different continents and because they are both fairly endangered, no one has attempted to cross them. (There are persistent rumors that dholes can cross with domestic dogs. One dog breed, the Bangkaew dog from Thailand, is said to have derived from a dog/dhole cross. However, I don’t believe this claim has ever been tested through DNA analysis.)

All this research has revealed that how we have traditionally thought about the dog family is probably wrong.

The golden jackal is actually a primitive offshoot of the wolf lineage, just as the coyote in the New World is. The Ethiopian wolf is an even more primitive offshoot.

The two endemic African jackals are the two oldest living species in the Canis lineage. They are even more distinct from this lineage than dholes and African wild dogs are.

We do not have a good replacement word for jackal.

I’ve suggested that we call golden jackals “Old World coyotes” almost as a joke.

But I don’t have a good name for either of the two remaining jackal.

Because black-backed jackals are so scrappy, I’ve even suggested that we call them “wild Jack Russells.”

Whatever we call them, the term jackal, if it’s used to reflect close relationships between species, is utterly meaningless.

With the exception of the two found only Africa, it doesn’t refer to any animals that have a close relationship with each other.

It’s just a term we use for smaller wild dogs that are in some way related to wolves.

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An Algonquin Park wolf. These wolves are naturally occurring hybrids between wolves and coyotes, not a unique "Eastern wolf" species as is commonly claimed. On average, they were found to share 58 percent of their genetic markers with wolves and 42 percent with coyotes.

One of the real problems in determining the exact taxonomy of the dog family is the interfertility that exist between certain species in the genus Canis.  The dog/dingo/New Guinea singing dog/Holarctic wolf species (Canis lupus) can interbreed with the coyote (Canis latrans), the golden jackal (Canis aureus), and the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) and produce fertile offspring.  Coyotes and golden jackals have been interbred in captivity and have also produced fertile offspring, so it is likely that all of these animals can hybridize with each other. According to the phylogenetic tree drawn from sequencing the dog genome, the Ethiopian wolf was the earliest offshoot of the interfertile Canis lineage , diverging 3 to 4 million years ago. And of the  “interfertile four,” it  is the most distantly related to the Canis lupus species, which strongly suggests that all four species can produce hybrids.

Potential interfetility alone is not the test for determining species, so one should not make the error of claiming that all of these interfertile dogs represent a single species.

They don’t.

Each of these animals has a unique evolutionary history, and they don’t normally hybridize in the wild.  Wolves and coyotes only cross when wolf populations are very low, and the male wolves mate with female coyotes. It is very difficult to get a dogs and golden jackals to crossbreed, though there may be be some evidence of dog genes in golden jackal population. Only the Bale Mountains National Park Ethiopian wolves have been found to cross with domestic dogs.

But various historical records, show that dogs and wolves got it on regularly when wolf populations were much higher and dogs were given more liberty. In the Old West, the best way to kill a wolf was to use a bitch in heat to draw in the male wolves. While the two were tied, it was very easy to come in with an ax or club and dispatch the male wolf, who was literally caught with his pants down. Male dogs were often known to go running off during wolf mating season, and they often returned– usually quite worn out. Wolves have been known to kill and eat other wolves that come into their territories, which is often how they will respond if a dog shows up. But there are historical accounts that show that wolf and dog interactions are much more complex than one might assume. The wolf and dog are now regarded as conspecifics. The dog is now believed to have derived from Eurasian wolves, with Middle Eastern wolf subspecies provided most of their current genetic diversity.

Dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs are derived from domestic dogs that went feral in their respective countries. Some natives of Papua New Guinea have hunting dogs that are derived from “wild” stock, and different groups of Indigenous Australians used dingoes as hunting dogs. So we now consider these animals to be derivatives of the wolf, but their most recent ancestors were domestic dogs. which were derive from wolves.

That’s why I say the Canis lupus is the Holarctic wolf/dingo/New Guinea singing dog/domestic dog species.

The existence of domestic dogs worldwide has caused a lot of confusion in classifying these species. Domestic dogs vary widely in appearance, and if an usual wolfish creature was spotted, it was assumed to be something unique. In reality, these creaturesmay have been nothing more than an aberrant domestic dog or a hybrid with a domestic dog.

Domestic dogs have contributed some genes to wild populations. Black wolves and coyotes received their melanism through hybridization with black domestic dogs.   Modern wild dog species do not have dewclaws on their hind legs, but domestic dogs do. Italian researchers found that if they found any wolf with dewclaws on the hind legs, they could be certain that it had some dog ancestry.

Now, the notion that dogs and wolves could be the same species isn’t as hard to fathom as another concept that stems from the interfertility between species in the genus Canis.

In North America, there has been some amount of gene flow between the dog and wolf species and the coyote.

Although Canis lupus and Canis latrans don’t regularly hybridize, they have done so enough to fundamentally change the genetic composition of each other.

Perhaps the first study to reveal the importance of this hybridization was Robert Wayne’s study of wolf and coyote mtDNA, which suggested that some wolves were actually coyote hybrids.  This study revealed an extensive hybrid zone between wolves and coyotes in North America, which likely resulted when wolf populations were decimated and the remaining wolves were forced to chose coyotes  for their mates.  Wayne’s research also pointed to the distinct possibility that the much ballyhooed red wolf was probably a hybrid, and this finding was confrimed in a microsatellite analysis.

In the early 90’s, this finding was not necessarily well-received. Supposed red wolves had been captured in Louisiana and East Texas, and these animals had been bred for decades in order to be released into the wild. In 1987, some red wolves from this breeding program was released into the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina.  By the early 90’s, this program was one of the more successful attempts at restoring endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Further, another microsatellite analysis revealed that the wolves of Algonquin Park in Ontario, which had been thought of as being derived from wolf/coyote hybrids, were actually a unique species. Proposed as the Eastern wolf species (Canis lycaon), it was believed to the same species as the red wolf. If these findings were true, then the only wolves to live in the temperate regions of North America were a unique species. The only survivors of this species were the wolves that lived in parts of Ontario and Quebec and the red wolf.

Microsatellite and mtDNA analysis are biased samples. They examine only a tiny part of the genome, and it is possible for these studies to produce really bad results.

What was needed was a study of nuclear DNA.

Unfortunately, studies of nuclear DNA were quite expensive and labor intensive.

It has been only in the last two years that really good analysis of dog and wolf genome has happened.

This spring, a study that examined 48,000 genetic markers within the genome of different populations of wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs revealed that the so called Eastern wolf and red wolf are simply not valid species. This was the most in depth analysis of the genetic material of any wild species and unlike the previous studies, included a broad sample of the genome.

They wolves of Algonquin Park are fairly close to 50/50 wolf and coyote hybrids, averaging 58 percent wolf and the rest coyote. The red wolf was found to be almost entirely coyote. On average, it was found to be 76 percent coyote and only 24 percent wolf.

It was also revealed that most Eastern coyotes have both wolf and dog ancestry, and it is from wolves that Eastern coyotes have inherited several wolf-like characteristics and adaptations. They have larger size and more powerful jaws than their Western counterparts, which makes preying upon deer much easier.

The so-called red wolf has only slightly more wolf ancestry than many Eastern coyotes, so it makes very little sense to go on and on about it.

But even if these studies have cast real doubt on the validity of the red wolf and Eastern wolf as valid species, they have revealed something else.

In North America, wolves and coyotes don’t merely exist as two potentially interbreeding yet clearly distinct species.

They actually exist within what is called a species complex.

In a species complex, it is somewhat difficult to determine where one species begins and another ends. The two species are exchanging genes, if not regularly then regularly enough to cause a great deal of blurring between the two. This hybridization also winds up affecting the evolution of both species.

The  so-called red wolf, the so-called Eastern wolf, and the Eastern coyote subspecies are examples of  how the gene flow between these two species wind up blurring the edges.

The species complex should called the Canis lupus/Canis latrans species complex.

Thus far, it is the only one that has been discovered within large terrestrial carnivores, but one likely existed between polar and brown/grizzly bears. One may exist between bobcats and Canada lynx, and one existed between modern humans and Neanderthals– and perhaps the Denisovan hominins, if they actually existed.

Golden jackals might have something similar going on in the Old World. Golden jackals are widespread animals, and they can hybridize with the Canis lupus species. Wild jackal-dog hybrids have been spotted– almost always the result of a male dog mating with a female jackal. Because they are raised by the wild parent, the pups will imprint upon the golden jackal, and if they survive to reproduce, they will likely contribute to the golden jackal population. In this way, dogs could have contributed genes to the golden jackal in the same way that dogs and wolves have contributed genes to coyotes.

I know of no examples of wild wolves interbreeding with golden jackals. However, there was canid that was thought of as a subspecies of golden jackal living in East and North Africa, but analysis of its mtDNA revealed it was actually a wolf. Nuclear DNA studies need to be performed to see exactly what it is, but in its mtDNA, it was found to be similar to the Indian and Himalayan wolf subspecies, which both possess the most ancient of modern wolf lineages. This “African wolf” (Canis lupus lupaster) is often quite small, so it could interbreed with golden jackals. In fact, I had initially thought the Egyptian population of these wolves, which had initially been believed to be the only wolf in Africa, was the result of hybridization with a relict North African population of Arabian wolves and the golden jackal. In dog and golden jackal hybrids, the father is usually the dog. In a wolf/golden jackal hybrid, the parentage is probably similar.  If the African wolf were a hybrid in the same way the red wolf is, the mtDNA– which is inherited maternally– would be unequivocally be that of the golden jackal, not some form of wolf.

The golden jackal has not been examined in the same way that the coyote, wolf, and dog have been. The African wolf subspecies has also not been examined in this depth.

It is possible if these animals were included in these studies that it might reveal a Canis lupus/Canis latrans/Canis aureus species complex.

Even though species complexes exist, the species in them are still distinct.

They are just less distinct than the differences between a wolf and an Ethiopian wolf and even less distinct than the differences between a wolf and a red fox.

The edges between wolves and coyotes are blurred through their interfertility.

Amazing, eh?

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I call these the Farley Mowat wolves.

Farley Mowat claimed in his famous book, Never Cry Wolf, that wolves in the Canadian arctic lived on mostly mice and lemmings.

Of course, those wolves do eat small prey, but they do take caribou and moose.

The Ethiopian wolf, which is not the same species as those in Canada, does live mostly on rodents.

They live in the Semien and Bale Mountains of Ethiopia. They live in large family groups, but unlike the Holarctic wolf, they don’t band together to hunt much larger prey.

Instead, they forage alone in alpine meadows, stalking rodents in this fashion.

When I was a kid, these animals were called Semien jackals.

But then a mitochondrial DNA study was released that suggested that Semien jackals were actually recent derivatives of the Holarctic wolf that became isolated in Africa.

However, the phylogenetic tree that was drawn from sequencing the dog genome revealed that these animals were actually more distantly related to wolves and dogs than golden jackals and coyotes are.

We could technically call them Semien jackals and be correct.

But the name “Ethiopian wolf” has stuck.

Plus, the Ethiopian wolf is quite endangered, and the notion that this animal was somehow a unique wolf of Africa increased its prestige in the public eye.

Of course, it turns out that there is an actual wolf subspecies in Africa.

But it’s likely not endangered, and it is difficult distinguish this animal from the golden jackal.

For years, these animals were classified with golden jackals, but they should be recognized as wolves.

So it’s all messed up.

Ethiopian wolves are wolves that live in Africa, but they aren’t African wolves.

Just like so many other things, our language has become confusing.

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This looks like it’s going to be a great wildlife documentary. Check out Nyala Productions’s website for more info.


One little quibble. There are actually two wolves in Ethiopia.

There is the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which is the creature that will be the focus of this documentary, and there is also the newly discovered African wolf subspecies (Canis lupus lupaster).  This African wolf subspecies was once regarded as a suspecies of golden jackal, but through sampling some supposed golden jackals in the Ethiopian Highlands, it was determined that they actually represented an ancient mitochondrial matriline within Canis lupus.

This African wolf should also not be confused with Xenocyon lycanonoides, which is an extinct canid that is sometimes called “the African wolf.”  It is actually the ancestor of the African wild dog, but its range was quite extensive in Africa and Eurasia until around 800,000 years ago. It continued to live on in Africa, where it evolved into its smaller current form.

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