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African Jackal in Wolf's Clothing

Ecologist and science journalist, and Bushtracks guest blogger, Cheryl Lyn Dybas explores the recent discovery of the gray wolves living mysteriously amongst Africa’s golden jackals, something which ancient Egyptians may have known long ago.

In The Time of the Jackal Gods

It is 2494 B.C., Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty.  A procession makes its way to a sun-temple, where the pharaoh’s Sed Festival, held in the thirtieth year of his reign, is set to begin.

A greeting awaits him: two officers wearing caps and tails lined with fur…fur the Egyptians believe came from wolves.  The human sentries represent the twin gods Anubis and Wepwawet.

Anubis and Wepwawet were called jackal-gods for the propensity of golden jackals to hunt rodents by night near cemeteries.  But were the gods in fact jackals?  Could one or both have been something else?

Might they have been wolves?  Long-ago Egyptians thought so.

What did they know that we don’t – or didn’t, until recently?

A golden jackal navigating a herd of wildebeest in the Ngorongoro National Park, Tanzania. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Millennia Later…

While doing field work in 2011 in Ethiopia, biologists noticed that certain golden jackals looked different than others.  “They were larger, more slender and sometimes had a whitish color,” says Nils Stenseth, a geneticist at the University of Oslo.  The researchers collected scat specimens for DNA analysis.

The samples, including some from “more usual-looking” golden jackals, were shipped to Stenseth’s laboratory for analysis.

Incredibly, says Stenseth, many of the golden jackal samples appeared to be wolf DNA.  But they didn’t correlate with samples in GenBank, the world’s largest repository of genetic sequences.

These unusual golden jackals are, however, in fact gray wolves, the only gray wolves on the African continent. The discovery tells researchers that members of the gray wolf lineage lived in Africa three million years ago.  From there, the wolves spread through the Northern Hemisphere.  Eventually they became the well-known gray wolf of the northern United States and Canada.

“We now know that wolves were indeed in Africa in the days of the ancient Egyptians – and long, long before,” says Stenseth.  The latest evidence shows that the wolf, which scientists refer to as the African wolf, or Canis lupus lupaster, lives across Africa as far west as Senegal.

If they’re lucky, those on safari might meet up with lupaster almost anywhere in Africa.

Lupaster looks like a large, blackish-yellow dog.  Its tail is brush-like, with black hairs on the end.  A mane of long, coarse, black-tipped fur runs from its crown to the base of its tail and onto its shoulders and hips.

Hyenas and jackals. Painting by Richard Lydekker 1916 The golden jackal is smaller than lupaster, with soft, pale fur.  Golden jackals are social animals: a breeding pair is often followed by its offspring, and it sometimes forms packs when hunting.  Its cry, heard just after dark or shortly before dawn, is a long, wailing howl followed by three yelps.

In contrast, lupaster travels alone.  A nocturnal creature, it’s sometimes glimpsed as the sun begins to set, when it emerges from caves and crevices, and from tombs.

Whether it howls remains unknown.

Lone Wolf in a Starkly Beautiful Land

The Menz Guassa Community Conservation Area in Ethiopia’s highlands may hold insights.  Lupaster has been seen most often in this land of short scrub plants sprouting from rock-strewn hillsides.

The Guassa area is managed through a common property resource system by people who live along its perimeter.  By the waning light of evening, Anubis and Wepwawet may walk among them.

“Out of the corner of your eye at sunset you might just spot lupaster,” says Karen Laurenson, an ecologist and veterinarian at the Frankfurt Zoological Society-Ethiopia Office.  She’s glimpsed an animal that appears at dusk, seemingly out of thin air, to return there just as quickly.

The golden jackal, or common jackal. Illustration by Carol Linneaus 1758

Ancient Gods Among Us

“Woollff!” shouted naturalist Lajos Nemeth-Boka.

Nemeth-Boka, who lives in the U.K., drove slowly along the west bank of the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan.  “An animal crossed the road in front of me, coming from the Nile’s shore and running toward the Sahara sands,” he says.  “I’ve seen golden jackals and I’ve seen wolves, and there is a big difference between the two.  This was clearly a wolf.”

It was, he believes, lupaster.

Five thousand years after Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty, will we give the incarnation of Anubis-Wepwawet the recognition – and protection – its position as Africa’s only gray wolf deserves?

The first version of this article was posted on 26 Aug 2014 at 12:56 PM.


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