They look alike, act alike and long have been considered to be the same species. But, in the case of the golden jackals found across parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe, it turns out that appearances can be deceiving.
Scientists said on Thursday a comprehensive genetic analysis found that these populations are made up of two entirely distinct species, with those in Africa different from the others.
The scientific name for the golden jackal is Canis aureus. The researchers proposed renaming those in Africa Canis anthus, or the African golden wolf.
"Our results showed that African and Eurasian golden jackals were distinct across all the genetic markers we tested, including data from whole genomes, suggesting these are independently evolving lineages," said Klaus-Peter Koepfli, a conservation and evolutionary geneticist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington.
Koepfli said the genetic data indicated the two lineages are not even closely related, with the African population more closely related to gray wolves and coyotes.
The finding raises the number of living species in the mammalian family called Canidae, which includes dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes and jackals, to 36 from 35.
The African golden wolf is found in north and east Africa, with perhaps some in the Middle East, while the Eurasian golden jackal is found from southern Europe to the Middle East and across southern Asia all the way to the edge of southeast Asia in Vietnam, the researchers said.
"We find no evidence of the Eurasian golden jackal occurring in continental Africa," Koepfli said.
The two species are quite similar in body size, wolf-like build, head shape, teeth and fur colour. They thrive across a variety of habitats, from dry savannas in Africa to tropical forests in southeast Asia. They are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food from small mammals to fruits.
The researchers determined that the African golden jackal lineage split from the lineage including gray wolves and coyotes about 1.3 million years ago while the Eurasian golden jackal lineage split about 600,000 years earlier.
"One of the main takeaways of our study is that even among well-known and widespread species such as golden jackals, there is the potential to discover hidden biodiversity, and that such discoveries are made even more possible by using data sampled from whole genomes," Koepfli said.
The research was published in the journal Current Biology.