Posts Tagged ‘golden wolf’

golden wolf vs. black backed jackal

Not the best photo, but this is golden wolf on the left and a black-backed jackal on the right. I screen-captured this image from this documentary, which was made before the big golden jackal revision that happened a few years ago.

There is still a big debate on how classify the creature formerly known as the African golden jackal. It is clearly closer to gray wolves and coyote than to the Eurasian golden jackal, but the exact closeness requires further research.

The black-backed jackal on the right is a much older species. It has been known from the fossil record in Africa for over two million years, and the wolf-coyote-golden wolf lineage last shared a common ancestor with it around 4.5 million years ago.

Depending upon when we finally determine when the golden wolf diverged from the modern gray wolf, it may have evolved from larger ancient gray wolves that adapted to fit the generalist jackal-like niche, or it may have evolved from a African population of Canis mosbachensis.

The black-backed jackal is derived from the earliest wolf-like canids to have entered the Old World from North America. Those early wolves were all smaller and jackal-like, and its appearance and adaptations are of the primitive type.

So here we have two species that look like they might just be color phases of the same species but actually are divided by millions of years of evolution. One is a truly primitive member of its lineage. So primitive and basal that its now classified in a different genus (Lupullela). The other came from a more derived source that evolved parallel characteristics with the primitive one.

Parallel evolution is a hell of a thing, especially when it comes to canids. So much of this parallel evolution has been missed in paleontology and in the conventional methods of taxonomy that use only morphology. Not recognizing the parallel evolution issues is why we didn’t notice that coyotes and gray wolves were much more closely related than we ever could have imagined. It’s also why we thought bush dog belonged with the dhole and African wild dog, just because their teeth are so similar, and it is also why an affinity has been suggested between crab-eating foxes and raccoon dogs, even though they are in entirely different lineages. It is also why there was a suggestion that red wolves represent an ancient lineage of North American wolves, when they are now probably hybrids between coyotes and gray wolves.

Parallel evolution messes up a lot of things. Our eyes and our measuring instruments can fail us.

But the correction of these failures reveals a much more mysterious world.

That’s the inherent beauty of science. Each correction is a revelation.



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Wolves come in many colors. The black ones, as we know, have their origin in domestic dogs, which crossed with wild wolves. The revelation intrigued me when it came out in early 2009, and I am always thinking of what color might mean when it comes to the evolution of wolves and dogs.

I have noticed that there are many photos of wolves from Finland that have an unusual color. Most European wolves (Canis lupus lupus) are dark gray sable, the classic “wolf color,” but in Finland, there seem to be more than a few wolves that appear to be golden in color. The wolves have varying amounts of sabling on their pelts, and some are what we would call “clear sables” if they were domestic dogs, as we can see the photos of “Susi,” the famous Swedish wolf that came from Finland or Russia.

It is possible that this coloration also has its origin in domestic dogs. There are rumors that the Russians turned out wolfdogs on the Finnish border, but there are always rumors about Russians and their deeds.

Of course, the Finns have always owned dogs of this color, and it is now known that some of these hunting and herding spitz breeds are derived from wolf and dog crosses. It is possible that the gene flow has worked both ways between these spitzes and Finnish wolves. Indeed, it is probably quite likely.

However, there is another possibility that is also worth considering.  In late 2013, Olaf Thalmann and Robert Wayne published a paper that compared samples of ancient mitochondrial DNA from the remains wolves, dogs, and possible transitional forms between wolves and dogs from Europe were compared to modern dogs and wolves. In this analysis, samples from dingoes and basenjis were included in order to get samples from dog populations that had long been isolated from the main dog population.  All modern dogs, including dingoes, are very close to these ancient European wolves in terms of their mitochondrial ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA alone can lead people astray when tracing evolution and ancestry, but the fact that dingoes were closest to these European canids really does point to a strong possibility that dogs were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers at some point between 18,800–32,100  years ago.

It is also interesting to me that almost all dingoes and many, many pariah and primitive dogs are red or yellow sables like these wolves. I wonder if these yellow Finnish wolves represent a sort of throwback to the ancestral European wolf population that gave rise to domestic dogs. Perhaps the majority of the ancient European wolves were golden in color.

Yellow wolves do occur in the Middle East, China, and South Asia,  and China and the Middle East have been suggested to be places where dog domestication first happened.  However, none of these wolves have been linked to dogs through ancient DNA samples in the same way the ancient wolves of Europe have been.

Of course, the questions about the yellow wolves of Finland could be answered in much the same way the questions about the origins of the black wolves of North America were.

But there is something to these golden wolves that does need some exploration.

Maybe they are the result of dog and wolf gene flow. Maybe they are just a local unique mutation.

Or maybe they are a flash of gold that tells us a bit about the past.

DNA nalysis on ancient remains has already revealed that dappled and black horses were in the wild Pleistocene horse populations, but no similar studies have been performed on the remains of ancient wolves or dogs.

Maybe there really is something to these yellow Finnish wolves that just a pretty coat.

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A wolf-like animal depicted in a Roman mosaic in Syria in the fifth century. It is said to be a hunting dog, but it looks a lot like a robust golden wolf.

This description of the five species of wolf native to the Roman Empire comes from Cynegetica, a poem on hunting that is attributed to Oppian of Apamea.

Of wolves there are five species—the first of a yellow hue,—swift, audacious, and by shepherds named the archer,—the next of superior magnitude and swiftness, known by the two names of the hawk and the plunderer; he seeks his prey with the dawn, and dwells in the lofty mountains—but when snow covers the ground, he assumes greater boldness, and in quest of prey approaches even the city walls. The third species inhabits the mountains of Taurus and Cilicia—an animal superior to the race of wolves, named the Golden, of prodigious strength, and able to resist the unspent brass and the pointed iron. He dreads the rising of the dog-star, and during the prevalence of its heat, lies concealed in his shady cavern. Of the two remaining species, the one from his white colour is named the Hoary Kite. The other is of smaller size,—black,— hirsute,—preys on hares (Cynegetica, Book Third).

This poem was written in the third century, and it includes an analysis and description of just about every game animal within the Roman Empire and the areas adjacent to its borders. The notion of there being more than one species of wolf within Eurasia is something we don’t  generally accept today, the supposed full species status of the Indian and Himalayan wolves not withstanding.

There is also a lot of exotic information about wildlife in this piece. Within lines adjacent to the discussion about wolves, we learn that hyenas change their sex every year and that male hyenas “become fruitful dams.” This is obviously a reference to the bizarre genitalia of female spotted hyenas, which would have been known from African specimens.  Spotted hyenas lived in the Middle East as recently as 8,000 years ago, but that would have been thousands of years before the poem was written. However, female striped hyenas sometimes have similar genitalia morphologies, which disappear as they mature, and striped hyenas are the species Oppian clearly describes in the text.

The author also points out that wolves mate with panthers, producing a creatures called “Thoes.”  This word is very similar to “thos,” the Classical Greek word for jackal. I don’t think that anyone thinks a jackal is a hybrid between a black leopard and a wolf.

Despite its inaccuracies, this piece of zoological literature is still useful.

For one thing, this section on the wolves tells us that wolves were once quite diverse in behavior and phenotype– even more so than they are now.

This small black wolf was around for a while.  As recently as the nineteenth century, there were small black wolves in the mountains of Syria that was a “Derboun.”  It may have been a pariah dog, or a type of naturally occurring wolfdog hybrid. Or it may have been a naturally occurring melanistic Arabian or Iranian wolf that may or may not have any relationship to modern melanistic wolves.

The big golden wolf could have been a striped hyena, but it also could have referred to an unusually powerful wolf. However, Oppian clearly describes the striped hyena as an animal with stripes. If the golden wolf had been a striped hyena, it would have been unlikely that he would have clearly defined the striped hyena without pointing out this similarity.

However, one should keep in mind that it is unlikely that Oppian had first hand knowledge of every animal in the text, but he might have encountered them via trade routes that crossed through the Levant. The Romans were obsessed with keeping exotic animals in menageries and for their circuses. Oppian may have been a noted sportsman of the region– perhaps someone who was responsible for taking notables out on hunting forays in the region–for the book is full of advice on how to hunt various animals.  It is unlikely that Oppian hunted these animals himself, but he could have known from talking to those who hunted them and were transporting them across the empire.

But I do think this piece suggests something we already knew. Wolves are a highly variable species, and in ancient times, they were so varied in appearance that they were thought of as different species.

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