That dog sitting beside you… Is he a dog, or a wolf? Maybe a jackal? Or is he all of the above? Depending on your definition, any of those answers are right. It’s hard to imagine our canine companion as anything besides a “dog,” but in reality, the identity of your dog is far more complicated than you think.
National Geographic recently published an article stating “Golden jackals of Africa and Eurasia are actually two distantly related species—and one is a new species of wolf, a new study shows.” The headline sounds like ground breaking, earth shattering news, but as the subtext shows, nothing new has actually been discovered. Instead, it seems one animal is now simply being cataloged as another.
But why and how does this happen? How does a jackal become a wolf? This sort of situation is actually not that uncommon and is another example of how complicated the Canid family is. It is not uncommon for “species” in the Canid family to move around. In fact sometimes the family tree looks like it’s in the middle of a hurricane.
To understand this mess of branches and leaves, we first need to remember what a species is. Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding.” This means a species is a group of animals that can interbreed and create young that can do the same. Therefore species should technically not be able to breed with other species.
Here’s where the storm blows the family tree clear out of the ground. You see, the issue the Canid family tree, is that most of the species can interbreed with each other. Wolves and dogs can breed naturally and produce wolfdogs that can also father future generations. The same is so for coyotes and dogs, and even jackals and dogs (as seen the Sulimov dog of Russia).
So if dogs can interbreed with all these other “species” where does that leave any of them? In the last 10 years there has even been a flip flop in calling dogs a subspecies of the wolf (canis lupus familiaris) or their own species (canis familiaris). Then there are the smaller, quieter controversies such as, what are New Guinea Singing Dogs? Are they a wild or feral?
It really depends on who you ask. All because these dogs were isolated on an island for an uncertain amount of time, interbreeding with all the other canids they could.
Originally animals were cataloged based on their outward appearance. Now with DNA in the picture, canids are moving all over the place. This is the case with the study by biologist Klaus-Peter Koepfli highlighted in the National Geographic article. The African Golden Jackal who looks a lot like the Eurasian Golden Jackal is now proposed to become the African Golden Wolf. And not just a Gray Wolf subspecies, but a species in and of itself.
But not all scientists agree. Philippe Gaubert, a biologist who published a similar study in 2012 says he “stands by his original work, saying that although he finds the new study to be high-quality work, he isn’t yet convinced that the African golden wolf is a new species.” This back and forth will likely go on for a very long time as we connect different chunks of evidence and look at them under the different lenses for different scientists.
Where does that leave our canine companions? Technically it changes little for our dogs. How we catalog these wild cousins has little effect on the normal day to day life of domestic dogs. However, it does continue to rewrite the story of how our dogs got to where they are today. So we’re left with bits of science and speculation but the answers are coming. We simply have to be patient and in the mean time, appreciate the dogs we have and the wondrous lineage that lies behind them.