Posts Tagged ‘Xenocyon lycanoides’


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 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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