07/31/2015 03:35 pm ET

Africa's Golden 'Jackals' Not Jackals At All, Scientists Say

The newly discovered African golden wolf is the first newfound canine in Africa in 150 years.

Scientists have long considered the "golden jackals" of East Africa and the jackals seen across Eurasia to be of the same species. But a new DNA study shows that we've gotten these cunning canines all wrong.

According to the study, the animals are distinct species -- and the African "jackals" aren't jackals at all but wolves. Dubbed Canis anthus, or the African golden wolf, this is the first new species of canid -- the biological family that includes dogs, wolves, coyotes, as well as jackals -- discovered in Africa in 150 years.

"Consistent with two previous studies also based on mitochondrial sequences, we find that golden jackals from Africa and Eurasia are not each other’s closest relative as we would expect if they were the same species," Dr. Klaus-Peter Koepfli, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., and the study's lead author, told The Guardian.

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The African golden wolf is on the left and the golden jackal of Eurasia is on the right. The two were previously thought to b
D. Gordon E. Robertson & Eyal Cohen (via UCLA)
The African golden wolf is on the left and the golden jackal of Eurasia is on the right. The two were previously thought to be of the same "golden jackal" species.

For the study, the researchers derived the evolutionary history of both the African and Eurasian animals by analyzing golden jackal DNA samples and extensive genomic data in both the jackals and gray wolves.

They noticed that African golden jackals (now considered to be the African golden wolf) split from their gray wolf and coyote ancestors around 1.3 million years ago. Eurasian golden jackals diverged some 600,000 years earlier -- and the two species’ mitochondrial DNA differs by up to 6.7 percent, Science magazine reported.

"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," Koepli told Reuters.

The researchers think that scientists previously mistook African and Eurasian golden jackals for the same species because they shared many physical traits, including the shapes of their skulls and teeth.

That sounds reasonable, but not all scientists are convinced.

Previous research by Dr. Philippe Gaubert, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France suggested that African golden jackals are a subspecies of gray wolf that's separate from the Eurasian jackal. He told National Geographic that he stands by his original work -- and isn't yet convinced that the African golden wolf is a new species.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," he said.

But Dr. Greger Larson, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Oxford in England, voiced his support of the scientists behind the new study.

"They have phenomenal data and they do a nice series of analyses," he told National Geographic. "It's a super airtight case."

The study was published online in the journal Current Biology on July 30, 2015.