When I first started writing this a few months ago I hadn’t fully appreciated just how complicated the subject matter was! The ID of WP canids has always been pretty straightforward; Grey Wolf & Golden Jackal, however a recent discovery has created an eye-opening twist to the story, and a true frontier in canid identification.
The story of WP canids is evolving rapidly. From two species last year to three species this year; and with one expanding its range exceptionally rapidly it pays to keep an open mind if you encounter one of these amazing predators. This article will focus on ID but it’s impossible to write a piece on Wolves and allies without covering some of the diverse cultural connections which surrounds them.
The species covered are:
- Grey Wolf (Canis lupis)
- African Golden Wolf (Canis anthus)
- Golden Jackal (Canis aureus)
For as long as humans can remember we have had a relationship with Wolves. Through fear and through respect they have entwined themselves in legend, folklore and lives of remote communities. Sadly, as is so often the way, that which we fear becomes persecuted and across Europe the number of wolves has declined leaving isolated populations. It was formerly the most widespread mammal on the planet but its range has contracted by approximately a third. Thankfully, despite continued persecution, populations are increasing in some areas and overall it is considered stable.
Wolves feature heavily in fairy tales from Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs to Norse mythology. In the former the Wolf represents the night and consumes various characters that represent the sun or dawn (eg Little Red Riding Hood is likely to represent dawn when she is cut from the belly of the wolf). Many of these tales were probably a product of direct warnings to children not to venture in to forests at night where they could have realistically become prey for Wolves, this is particularly true in native North American culture. There are of course positive references to Wolves in the literature and in indigenous cultures where they are seen to remove weaker ungulates (especially Reindeer) from the population thus maintaining healthy herds which were generally managed by the Saami and other Reindeer herding communities.
Sadly there are still numerous instances of illegal persecution and continued hunting. Some countries in Scandinavia actively manage their Wolf populations for hunting and indeed they suppress the population to such an extent that species such as Elk/Moose are now overly abundant, similar to the situation we have in Scotland with Red Deer (we just need some Wolves to help with the population management).
The Grey Wolf is as a remarkable predator, and much like the Raven in the bird world, it has colonised all habitats from Arctic tundra to arid desert. A communal pack hunter, this animal is capable of working cooperatively to run-down and out-smart some of European largest animals. In the WP Wolves can still be found throughout Scandinavia as well as in the remoter areas of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Alps, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and through the Middle East to Israel.
Ancient history did not neglect Golden Jackals either. Anubis, the god associated with mummification in Egyptian mythology was thought to be based on the Golden Jackal (though the recent discoveries tend to point to it actually being African Golden Wolf rather than Jackal). Interestingly despite being one of the most heavily depicted gods, Anubis played little role in Egyptian Mythology.
In contrast to wolves, the Golden Jackal tends to be a solitary hunter, more opportunistic and more eclectic in their diet. They are found throughout the Middle east and south-eastern Europe however the last decade has seen a massive expansion in its range with animals recorded throughout eastern Europe as far north as Estonia, up to north-eastern Italy, Poland, Germany, and the first record for Denmark occurred only a few weeks ago. It seems not illogical to expect this expansion to continue and observers in France, Holland and maybe even Spain should be aware of the possibility of encountering Jackals.
Now a third species comes into the mix, African Golden Wolf. Until recently it was assumed that the North African animals were simply Golden Jackals however a study published this summer showed that in fact these animals represent a cryptic Wolf species Canis anthus.
The current distributional limits of Golden Jackal and African Golden Wolf haven’t yet been fully established and evidence of African Golden Wolf DNA in Jackals in Israel suggests there is a hybrid zone. Until further work has been undertaken then a crude assumption would be that Golden Jackal occurs up to the Egyptian border and those animals in Africa represent African Golden Wolf. The situation is further confused by the presence of Grey Wolf right up to the Egyptian border and possibly even west of the Nile. A summary of recent events is as follows:
- In 2011 the first suggested occurrence of Grey Wolves in North Africa came to light and was reported here.
- Further evidence and pictures in 2012 including what looks like a superb full adult Grey Wolf west of the Nile were documented here:
- Pictures and video from 2011-2013 in Morocco raise questions as to just what these animals are. Superficially some look large and robust but others slightly closer to African Golden Wolf. These can be seen here.
- Genetic work undertaken in 2012 extended the range of Grey Wolf by 6000km to the west as far as Senegal and was published in a paper here.
- This year a new paper examined the DNA of North African canids and discovered that they were not North African Grey Wolf as previously thought but African Golden Wolf with the divergence from Jackals being significant (6.7%). The paper makes no mention of any Grey Wolves in North Africa
The taxonomy in North Africa is still confused. The above links show animals that appear to be large and robust, occurring in the mountainous regions of Morocco whilst those in Senegal appear much slightly and more Jackal-like. Whilst this variation may be explained by differences in environmental conditions experienced by different populations, it may also represent cryptic species.
The more that we investigate these amazing mammals, the more questions we seem to be unearthing. Just how many species of canid there are in North Africa and across the rest of Africa and Asia is anyones guess!
In March 2015 Richard Moores and myself camera-trapped two animals in the Dahkla area of Southern Morocco which appeared to resemble the structure of a Grey Wolf as well as several African Golden Wolves (at this time we still assumed they were Golden Jackals). Whilst the most recent paper does not provide any indication or even mention the presence of Grey Wolf in Africa I feel that the possibility of its existence or of a superficially similar species shouldn’t be ignored. Hopefully further more extensive genetic work will clarify the situation.
Across the pond in the States the canid situation is also fascinating and evolving. Dubbed the ‘Coywolf’ Eastern Coyotes are evolving and adapting to the modern mosaic of environments including the urban landscape. Research has shown that whilst most of the DNA is Coyote, varying percentages of Dog and Wolf DNA is also present. These hybrids would have been borne during periods of low population density when individuals searching for mates couldn’t locate another individual of their own species, instead settling for a Wolf, Coyote or Dog. This hybridisation period has occurred over the past 100 years and has resulted in potentially a better adapted Coyote than previous ‘untainted’ Coyotes. Animals are bigger and better able to take down deer, they are also more accepting of urban environments and the food sources they bring. You can read more of this fascinating evolution here.
I’d like to say the ID of our three WP canid species is straightforward, however in general it’s not! If you encounter a Wolf pack on a cold clear snowy day in a Finnish forest then you will probably know exactly what you are looking at. Your heart will be pumping faster than should be physically possible and the yellow of the wolves eyes will cut right through you.
A few thousand kilometres to the south and the pressures of arid environments create very different beasts. Sleek, slim, and smaller Wolves can be easily confused with Golden Jackals. There are a few key features that you should focus on should you be lucky enough to encounter a Jackal or Wolf, although, like many complex species groups, a combination of features often proves the most reliable way of identifying individuals. You should also bear in mind that not all individuals may be identifiable to species on single views. Key features are:
- Overall Size
- Leg length and shape
- Head proportions including: ear size and shape, and muzzle length and breadth
- Throat and chest colouration and pattern
- Tail colour
Large and robust (especially northern individuals), large ears, broad face with cheeks as wide or even wider than ear base when viewed head-on. Heavy brow producing a distinct forehead. Muzzle broad and long with a large nose. Colouration is variable but generally shows large white clown-style lip which often extends into a white throat. Frequently shows a predominantly pale tail with a dark tip.
African Golden Wolf:
Medium to large canid, formerly considered to be Golden Jackal though subtle field differences are apparent. Large triangular ears create a top heavy appearance to the head with a long, thin muzzle and smaller nose, forming a pointy face. Within its current taxonomic status there appears to be significant variability within its appearance with large robust animals in the Atlas Mountains and much smaller, slimmer individuals in the deserts. There is still the possibility that these represent two species.
A medium sized dog with smaller more rounded ears, a slimmer and shorter muzzle which generally ends in quite a pointy nose. The pelage is often richly golden brown or even rufous-toned and animals can exhibit an extensive dark saddle. Jackals appear long-bodied and shorter legged than Wolves. Many also show the distinctive pale throat, darker collar and pale chest patterning which is typical of all our WP canids.
Dogs and hybrids:
Theoretically hybrids could show any number of intermediate features, or even almost identical features to one of other parents. It should be borne in mind anywhere in the range of any of these species that hybrids could and probably do occur. In fact we already known that hybrid Golden Jackal x African Golden Wolf occur in Israel so the chances are high that other hybrids also occur.
Where to see:
Spain – Wolves are now proving to be regular sighted in Cantabria. A number of tour companies run trips to find them
Israel – Israel offers the best opportunities of encountering desert wolves in the WP. Populations are still reasonable good and areas such as Sde Boker are a good bet, especially around the Vulture feeding station at Ramat HaNegev Birding Center, as well as in the Negev.
Italy – If you want to experience Wolves in an atmospheric setting then Abruzzo National Park in central Italy is the place to go. Visit the park in Autumn and you stand the chance of experiencing howling wolves alongside rutting Red deer as this beautiful soundscape illustrates.
Given its rapid range expansion you should bear in mind that you could encounter Jackals almost anywhere in eastern Europe, from Matsalu Bay in Estonia to Israel, Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and Italy, they are possible. With Denmark getting its first record recently observers out in Holland, the Alps and even France and Spain should be aware of the possibility of encountering one.
Saker Tours offer Jackal photography. For more info see here.
African Golden Wolf
We currently recognise this species as occurring throughout North Africa and most recent sightings seem to come from birders visiting Morocco; Tan Tan, Guelimin, Western Sahara (especially the Aousserd Road). It is no doubt a widespread and probably fairly common species and any areas of relatively undisturbed open landscapes should be worth checking.
Anyone encountering a canid in North Africa should endeavour to gather images as I’m sure there is still a twist in the taxonomic tale of this species to come.