Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopian wolf’

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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The Cuberow

From Richard Lydekker’s Game Animals of Africa (1908):

On account of its rarity and zoological interest a few lines may be devoted to the cuberow, or so-called Abyssinian wolf, of the highlands of central Abyssinia, which, although described by Ruppell so long ago as 1835, was scarcely known in England, except by its skull, till a few years ago, when skins were brought home by Major Powell-Cotton.

Although called a wolf by the older writers, the cuberow is regarded by Mr. Oscar Neumann (as quoted by the Hon. Walter Rothschild in the appendix to Powell-Cotton’s Sporting Trip to Abyssinia) as an overgrown fox; its habits, gait, and actions generally being described as essentially those of a fox. The length and slenderness of the muzzle of the skull (in which the premolar teeth are small and widely sundered) is another fox-like character. More important is the fact that the skull is fox-like in having the upper surface of the projection behind the socket of the eye hollow instead of convex.

Mr. Pocock, in the work cited under the heading of jackals, refuses, however, to admit the foxy affinity of the cuberow, and places it between the wolves and the jackals, although remarking that it differs more from the former than does the Egyptian representative of the latter. It is certainly neither a wolf nor a jackal.

In size the cuberow is stated by Mr. Pocock not to exceed the Egyptian jackal; while its prevailing colour is given as light yellowish red speckled with black. The tail, which is black-tipped, is darker above than the back; the lower surface of its basal portion, together with the margins of the mouth, the chest, under-parts, and the inner surfaces of the limbs being white. The total length of the animal is about 50 inches, of which 10 are taken up by the tail.

Even in its native home, the mountains of Simien, the cuberow is a rare animal, although several examples were seen alive by Major Powell-Cotton during his adventurous expedition to that region (pg. 462),

This animal is currently regarded as the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). Its exact relationship to the other wolf-like canid isn’t exactly clear, but it is interfertile with domestic dogs. Some earlier mitochondrial DNA studies have suggested that is nothing more than an early offshoot of the Canis lupus line (hence the current name of “Ethiopian wolf”), while the genomic analysis study on the dog family suggests that it split off from the other wolf-like canids before the golden jackal did.

Whatever its exact position within the dog family, this account by Lydekker shows that the Ethiopian wolf was quite rare a hundred years ago. Although it lives in packs, it lives almost exclusively on rodents– the real Farley Mowat wolf– but that hasn’t stopped it from being persecuted for being a livestock killer. Its current problems are almost exclusively the result of its interactions with domestic dog, which carry canine diseases and occasionally “pollute” the gene pool through crossbreeding.  A dog-born rabies outbreak in Bale  Mountains National Park more than halved the population, which had the largest extant population of these dogs.

It is currently the most endangered of all wild dogs, and it may follow the warrah or Falkland Islands wolf into extinction. If it does,  the Ethiopian wolf and the warrah will be the first dog species to become extinct within historic times.

It is fascinating that so many people regarded this animal as a fox for no other reason than its red coloration. Would the same people have classified the Pomeranian or the shiba inu as a fox?  What about the darker golden retrievers?

Of course, its name has changed quite a bit over the years. When I was a kid, I saw a PBS Nature program about these animals, and it referred to them as the “Simien jackal.”  The animals were once quite common in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, which is where the other population of these wolves can be found. It made sense that they were jackals, but unlike golden jackals, it was noted that it was weird that they lived in large packs and lived almost exclusively on a type of mole-rat.

And now that it seems that the consensus seems to be shifting away from the theory that it was an early offshoot of Canis lupus, I wouldn’t be surprised if we starting calling it a jackal once again.

I would have called it the red wolf, but that name has already been taken– by a coyote!

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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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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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