The case of the golden jackal has proved once again that looks can be deceiving when trying to classify species. The golden jackal, pictured above, was thought to be one species but new DNA testing provides a strong case that they are actually two species that look very similar. The new species is now being called the golden wolf.
There are several ways to classify species. The traditional method of classifying species based to morphological characteristics has proved time and time again to be ineffective in classifying closely related species. There are several examples of species that look very similar to each other but are distinct species. Some examples include dolphins and porpoises, crocodiles and alligators and turtles and tortoises. There is also a phenomenon in nature called mimicry where one species evolves to resemble another, which can usually help it avoid predators. This can make it very difficult to classify species based on what they look like.
Another method is the biological species concept where an individual can only mate with others within their species. DNA testing is also used extensively to define species. Biologists will look at a certain section of DNA that will vary between species but not in individuals within a species. This is the method that was used to show the golden jackal was actually two species.
Using DNA testing, the team discovered that the jackals living in Africa are more closely related to grey wolves. They gave them the name Golden wolf; the scientific name is Canus anthus. The golden jackal, Canus aureus is found in the Middle East and Europe.
The team, led by Klaus-Peter Koepfli, says the results are surprising. This is because there are no grey wolves in Africa and because they look quite different compared to the golden jackal. The biochemical characteristics between grey wolves and golden wolves are also very different.
The team analyzed genomic data, including mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed down by the mother to study the evolutionary history of the two species. They showed that the two species have been separated for about 1 million years. This is more than enough time to conclude that the species have completely diverged.
In addition to this they found that the golden jackal diverged from wolves about 1.9 million years ago while the golden wolf just 1.3 million years ago. This shows the golden wolf is a separate species and is more closely related to the grey wolves than the jackals.