The golden jackals found in Africa, Europe the Middle East and Asia have long been considered the same species, thanks to their physical features and behavior.
Apparently, looks can be deceiving.
Extensive DNA analysis, backed up by previous studies, shows that the population consists of two species of genetically distinct lineage, one of which was previously unknown to scientists, according to a report published this week.
The slender, short-muzzled Eurasian golden jackal with reddish-brown fur that we’ve always known goes by Canis aureus. Even though they resemble Canis aureus, those found in Africa have more genetically in common with gray wolves, leading researchers to propose a new scientific name: the African golden wolf, or Canis anthus.
The discovery marks the first new canid species in Africa in 150 years, according to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. A canid is a member of Canidae, the biological family for dogs, wolves and other such mammals.
A team of researchers, led by SCBI scientist Klaus-Peter Koepfli, published their findings Thursday in Current Biology.
The team said the discovery was “surprising” given the absence of gray wolves in Africa and the difference in observable physical and biochemical characteristics between the two species.
To test the distinct-species hypothesis and understand the evolutionary history that would produce this result, researchers analyzed extensive genomic data, including mitochondrial genome sequences and whole-genome nuclear sequences, in African and Eurasian golden jackals and gray wolves.
Their research provided “consistent and robust evidence” that the African gray wolves and Eurasian golden jackals have been distinct for more than 1 million years, the report said, despite similarities in their body size and cranial structure.
CNN’s Eli Watkins contributed to this report.