28 january 2011

New African wolf discovered

Science

Animal found in Eritrea, likely to be a new species of African wolf
Animal sighted in Eritrea, likely to be the new species of African wolf

Scientists studying genetic evidence have discovered a new species of wolf living in Africa.

The researchers have proved that the mysterious animal, known as the ‘Egyptian jackal’ and often confused with the golden jackal, is not a sub-species of jackal but a grey wolf.

The discovery, by a team from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), the University of Oslo, and Addis Ababa University, shows that grey wolves reached Africa around 3 million years ago before spreading throughout the northern hemisphere. The new wolf is a relative of the Holarctic grey wolf, the Indian wolf and the Himalayan wolf.

A report of the research appears this week in the journal PLoS One.

Professor David Macdonald, an author of the paper and Director of Oxford University’s WildCRU, said: ‘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.’

Professor Claudio Sillero, also of the WildCRU and Chair of the IUCN’s Canid Specialist Group, who has worked in Ethiopia for more than two decades, said: ‘This discovery contributes to our understanding of the biogeography of Afroalpine fauna, an assemblage of species with African and Eurasian ancestry which evolved in the relative isolation of the highlands of the Horn of Africa. Rare Ethiopian wolves are themselves a recent immigrant to Africa, and split off from the grey wolf complex even earlier than the newly discovered African wolf.’

Dr Eli Rueness of the University of Oslo, the first author of the paper, said: ‘We could hardly believe our own eyes when we found wolf DNA that did not match anything in GenBank.’

Professor Nils Chr. Stenseth, an author of the paper and the Chair of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) said: ‘this study shows the strengths of modern genetic techniques: old puzzles may be solved.’

The team also found genetically very similar specimens to this new wolf in the highlands of Ethiopia, 2,500 km from Egypt, suggesting that the new species is not just found in Egypt.

Professor Afework Bekele at Addis Ababa University added: ‘This shows how genetic techniques may expose hidden biodiversity in a relatively unexplored country like Ethiopia.’

Golden jackals are regarded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as not threatened – a “species of least concern” – but the newly discovered African wolf may be much rarer. The team believe it is a priority for both conservation and science to discover its whereabouts and numbers.

Professor Sillero said: ‘It seems as if 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 suggests that it should be re-named ‘the African wolf’.’

WildCRU is part of Oxford University's Department of Zoology.

A report of the research, ‘The cryptic African wolf: Canis aureus lupaster is not a golden jackal and is not endemic to Egypt’, is published this week in PLoS One.