Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cryptic new wolf species identified in north Africa

Grey wolf in Egypt.
Photo credit Lajos Nemeth/Greeneye Tours
The cryptic African wolf: Canis aureus lupaster is not a golden jackal
January 2011. New molecular evidence reveals a new species of grey wolf living in Africa. Formerly confused with golden jackals, and thought to be an Egyptian subspecies of jackal, the new African wolf shows that members of the grey wolf lineage reached Africa about 3 million years ago, before they spread throughout the northern hemisphere. Read about recent sightings.

Egyptian Golden jackal - Looked very wolflike

As long ago as 1880 the great evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley commented that Egyptian golden jackals - then as now regarded as a subspecies of the golden jackal - looked suspiciously like grey wolves. The same observation was made by several 20th Century biologists studying skulls. Nonetheless, the conventional taxonomy has not been changed.

Grey wolf
A new study, involving a collaboration of biologists from the University of Oslo, Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and Addis Ababa University, has uncovered genetic evidence that unambiguously places the Egyptian jackal within the grey wolf species complex. It is not a jackal, but a wolf, taxonomically grouped with the Holarctic grey wolf, the Indian wolf and the Himalayan wolf. Dr Eli Rueness, the first author of the paper, states that "We could hardly believe our own eyes when we found wolf DNA that did not match anything in GenBank."

Wolf evolution
The genetic data indicate that the Indian and Himalayan wolves evolved as separate taxa within the modern wolf cluster even before the grey wolf radiated throughout the northern hemisphere. Furthermore, not only did these two types of wolves originate before grey wolves radiated in northern latitudes, but the wolfish colonization of Africa took place before the grey wolf radiation as well. The colonization of Africa by the ancestral stock of grey wolves took place about 3 million years ago and is today embodied by the animal that has hitherto been called the Egyptian jackal. Professor Claudio Sillero, of the WildCRU and current Chairman of the IUCN's Canid Specialist Group, added that "Ethiopian wolves split off from the grey wolf complex even earlier than the newly discovered African wolf."

Grey wolves in Ethiopia - Very different from Ethiopian wolves
The Oslo/WildCRU/Addis Ababa team also found genetically very similar specimens 2,500 km from Egypt, in the highlands of Ethiopia. Golden jackals are regarded by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as not endangered - a "species of least concern" - but the newly discovered African wolf may be much rarer. Certainly, it is a priority for both conservation and science to discover its whereabouts and numbers. Professor David Macdonald, an author of the paper and Director of Oxford's WildCRU, remarks that "A wolf in Africa is not only important conservation news, but raises fascinating biological questions about how the new African wolf evolved and lived alongside not only the real golden jackals but also the vanishingly rare Ethiopian wolf, which is a very different species with which the new discovery should not be confused."

It seems that the Egyptian jackal is urgently set for a name-change, and its unique status as the only member of the grey wolf complex in Africa destines it to be re-named the African wolf.

Lajos Nemeth adds - "I am amazed that none of the press mentions
the obvious nomenclatural changes, that the name of this taxon is not
C. aureus lupaster, but Canis lupus lupaster (comb. nova).
But there is a further question - Is lupaster a subspecies or a fully
recognisable species (Canis lupaster)?"
According to Professor Nils Chr. Stenseth, an author of the paper and the Chair of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), "This study shows the strengths of modern genetic techniques: old puzzles can be solved." "This shows how genetic techniques may expose hidden biodiversity in a relatively unexplored country like Ethiopia," concludes Professor Afework Bekele at Addis Ababa University.

African grey wolf sightings
After the publication of this news, Lajos Nemeth-Boka, head naturalist and tour leader of GreenEye Ecotours came up with some interesting pictures, believed to be some of the very few pictures, if any, ever taken about this rare species, in a broad daylight.

Lajos wrote: "...-I was happy to read this interesting news! The existence of this cryptic taxa is well-known among Egyptian zoologists, but because of the confusion with the regular Golden Jackal, there are very few people who ever had any field experience. This is something of a ghost, like the "never -seen alive" Sahara cheetahs of the Quattarra depression.

In November 2007 I was on a private birdwatching tour and we were driving slowly along the quite abandoned western bank of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan. The animal, a big male crossed the road in front of us, coming from the Nile shore' bush and plantations, and headed towards the Saharan sands. I immediately shouted "-Wooolffff!!!" and we stopped immediately.

The wolf was running towards the Sahara and I had several opportunities to take pictures and observe its movement, which was absolutely different from that of the classic Golden Jackal. I have seen wolves in Eastern Europe and Golden jackals at several places, and there is a sharp and obvious physical difference between the two.

Later I had a discussion on internet forums with some top local experts such as Sherif Baha ed Din, Richard Hoath and Ahmed Riad. As it turned to be out there were some possible sightings around Quarun Lake, and several around the Sinai and Gebel Maghara. However, the Sinai population clearly belongs to the classic Arabian Wolf (Canis lupus arabs), while the status of Lake Quarun specimens is still unknown. Because the range of the normal Golden Jackal overlaps with this cryptic taxa, the above Norwegian results and our observation support the idea that we are talking about two clearly different species in Upper Egypt.
We also should also mention that there was an interesting observation from Eritrea about an unknown Canid species, which makes the taxonomic debates of the Horn of Africa even more complicated. I have been travelling for 6-7 month each year for some 15 years now, but this observation is still one of the most memorable and breathtaking I ever had..."

If you are interested in more pictures and location of this exciting observation, please click

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