AppearanceThe golden jackal is very similar to the grey wolf in general appearance, but is distinguished by its smaller size, lighter weight, shorter legs, more elongated torso and shorter tail. The end of the tail just reaches the heel or slightly below it. The head is lighter than the wolf's, with a less-prominent forehead, and the muzzle is narrower and more pointed.
Its skull is similar to the wolf's, but is smaller and less massive, with a lower nasal region and shorter facial region. The projections of the skull are strongly developed, but weaker than the wolf's. Its canine teeth are large and strong, but relatively thinner than the wolf's, and its carnassials are weaker. Occasionally, it develops a horny growth on the skull which is associated with magical powers in southeastern Asia. This horn usually measures half an inch in length, and is concealed by fur. The iris is light or dark brownish. Females have 4-5 pairs of teats.
The fur's base colour is golden, though this varies seasonally from pale creamy yellow to dark tawny. The fur on the back often consists of a mixture of black, brown and white hairs, which sometimes form a dark saddle similar to the black-backed jackal's. Animals from high elevations tend to have buffier coats than their lowland counterparts. The underparts and belly are of a lighter pale ginger to cream colour than the back. Individual specimens can usually be distinguished by light markings on the throat and chest which differ individually. The tail is bushy, and has a tan or black tip. Melanists occasionally occur, and were once considered "by no means rare" in Bengal.
Unlike melanistic wolves and coyotes, which historically received their dark pigmentation from interbreeding with domestic dogs, melanism in golden jackals likely stems an independent mutation, and could be an adaptive trait. An albino specimen was photographed in 2012 in southeastern Iran.
The golden jackal moults twice a year, in spring and autumn. In Transcaucasia and Tajikistan, the spring moult begins in mid-late February, while in winter it starts in mid-March and ends in mid-late May. In healthy specimens, the moult lasts 60–65 days. The spring moult begins on the head and limbs, then extends to the flanks, chest, belly and rump, with the tail coming last. The autumn moult takes place from mid-September onwards. The shedding of the summer fur and the growth of the winter coat is simultaneous. The development of the autumn coat starts with the rump and tail, spreading to the back, flanks, belly, chest, limbs and head, with full winter fur being attained at the end of November.
NamingBecause of the species' wide distribution, a large number of local races have been described. During the 19th century, the golden jackals of Africa were considered separate species from those in Eurasia, and were named "thoas" or "thous dogs". Although several attempts have been made to synonymise many of the proposed names, the taxonomic position of West African jackals, in particular, is too confused to come to any precise conclusion, as the collected study materials are few. Prior to 1840, six of the ten supposed West African subspecies were named or classed almost entirely because of their fur colour.
The species' display of high individual variation, coupled with the scarcity of samples and the lack of physical barriers on the continent preventing gene flow, brings into question the validity of some of these West African forms. The species remains poorly understood from a genetic standpoint; while the karyotype of Croatian jackals is similar to that of dogs and wolves, that of Indian jackals differs considerably, leading to the possibility that the golden jackal is in fact an aggregate of poorly defined species.
As of 2005, 12 subspecies of golden jackal are currently recognised. However, the list below does not include "Canis aureus lupaster", the so-called "Egyptian jackal", which was demonstrated in 2011 through mtDNA analysis to be in fact a grey wolf.
StatusThe species is common in North and north-east Africa, occurring from Senegal to Egypt in the east, in a range including Morocco, Algeria, and Libya in the north to Nigeria, Chad and Tanzania in the south. It also inhabits the Arabian Peninsula and has expanded into Europe. The jackal's current European range mostly encompasses the Balkans, where habitat loss and mass poisoning caused it to become extinct in many areas the 1960s, with core populations only occurring in scattered regions such as Strandja, the Dalmatian Coast, Aegean Macedonia and the Peloponnese.
It recolonised its former territories in Bulgaria in 1962, following legislative protection, and subsequently expanded its range into Romania and Serbia. Individual jackals further expanded into Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia during the 1980s. Recently, an isolated population was confirmed in western Estonia, much further than their common range. Whether they are an introduced population or a natural migration is yet unknown. To the east, its range runs through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, the entire Indian subcontinent, then east and south to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and parts of Indochina.
In India, the golden jackal is included in CITES Appendix III, and is featured in Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, thus receiving the least legal protection. The species occurs in all of India's protected areas, save for those in the higher areas of the Himalayas. Golden jackals in East Africa occur in numerous conservation units, including the Serengeti-Masai Mara-Ngorongoro complex.
Although listed as vulnerable in the Red Data Book for Greek Vertebrates, the golden jackal is not listed as a game species in Greece, nor is it afforded legal protection. In Estonia, it has been classified as an invasive species, and subject to extermination campaigns.
BehaviorThe golden jackal's social organisation is extremely flexible, varying according to the availability and distribution of food. The basic social unit is a breeding pair, followed by its current offspring, or offspring from previous litters staying as "helpers". Large groups are rare, and have only been recorded to occur in areas with abundant human waste. Family relationships among golden jackals are comparatively peaceful compared to those of the black-backed jackal; although the sexual and territorial behaviour of grown pups is suppressed by the breeding pair, they are not actively driven off once they attain adulthood. Golden jackals also lie together and groom each other much more frequently than black-backed jackals.
In the Serengeti, pairs defend permanent territories encompassing 2–4 km², while in Tajikistan, home ranges can have a radius of 12 km. Breeding pairs will vacate their territories only to drink or when lured by a large carcass. During severe winters or brushfires, when food is scarce, golden jackals may travel 40–50 km, sometimes appearing in villages and cultivated areas. The pair patrols and marks its territory in tandem. Both partners and helpers will react aggressively towards intruders, though the greatest aggression is reserved for intruders of the same sex; pair members do not assist each other in repelling intruders of the opposite sex.In the Caucasus and Transcaucasia, female golden jackals usually give birth in burrows dug with the assistance of males, or they occupy derelict fox or badger dens. The burrow is dug a few days before parturition, with both the male and female taking turns digging. The burrow is located either in thick shrubs, on the slopes of gulleys or on flat surfaces. A golden jackal burrow is a simple structure with a single opening. Its length is about 2 metres, while the nest chamber occurs at a depth of 1.0-1.4 metres. In Dagestan and Azerbaijan, litters are sometimes are located within the hollows of fallen trees, tree roots and under stones on river banks. In Middle Asia, the golden jackal does not dig burrows, but constructs lairs in dense tugai thickets. Jackals in the Vakhsh tugais construct 3-metre-long burrows under tree roots or directly in dense thickets. Jackals in the tugais and cultivated lands of Tajikistan construct lairs in long grass plumes, shrubs and reed openings.The golden jackal rarely hunts in groups, though packs of 8–12 jackals consisting of more than one family have been observed in the summer periods in Transcaucasia. When hunting singly, the golden jackal will trot around an area, occasionally stopping to sniff and listen. Once prey is located, it will conceal itself, quickly approach, then pounce. When hunting in pairs or packs, jackals run parallel to their prey and overtake it in unison. When hunting aquatic rodents or birds, they will run along both sides of narrow rivers or streams, driving their prey from one jackal to another. The golden jackal rarely catches hares, as they are faster than it. Gazelle mothers are formidable when defending their young against single jackals, which are much more successful in hunting gazelle fawns when working in pairs. Jackal pairs will methodically search for concealed gazelle fawns within herds, tall grass, bushes and other likely hiding places.
Although it is known to kill animals up to three times its own weight, the golden jackal overall targets mammalian prey much less frequently than the black-backed jackal. Upon capturing large prey, the golden jackal makes no attempt to kill its prey, but rips open its belly and eats the entrails. Small prey is typically killed by shaking, though snakes may be eaten alive from the tail end. The golden jackal often carries away more food than it can consume, and caches the surplus, which is generally recovered within 24 hours. When foraging for insects, the golden jackal turns over dung piles to find dung beetles. During the dry seasons, it excavates dung balls to reach the larvae within. Grasshoppers and flying termites are caught either by pouncing or are caught in mid-air. It is fiercely intolerant of other scavengers, having been known to dominate vultures on kills. It can singly hold dozens of vultures at bay by threatening, snapping and lunging at them.Golden jackals frequently groom one another, particularly during courtship, during which it can last up to ½ hour. Nibbling of the face and neck is observed during greeting ceremonies. When fighting, the golden jackal slams its opponents with its hips, and bites and shakes the shoulder. The species' postures are typically canine, and it has more facial mobility than the black-backed and side-striped jackals, being able to expose its canine teeth like a dog.
The vocabulary of the golden jackal is similar to that of the domestic dog, though more "plaintive", with seven different sounds having been recorded. The golden jackal's vocalisations include howls, barks, growls, whines and cackles. Different subspecies can be recognised by differences in their howls. One of the most commonly heard sounds is a high, keening wail, of which there are three varieties; a long single toned continuous howl, a wail that rises and falls, and a series of short, staccato howls. These howls are used to repel intruders and attract family members. Howling in chorus is thought to reinforce family bonds, as well as establish territorial status.
Adults howl standing, while young or subordinate specimens do so in a sitting posture, with the frequency of howling increasing during the mating season. The golden jackal has been recorded to howl upon hearing church bells, sirens or the whistles of steam engines and boats. It typically howls at dawn, midday and the evening. When in the vicinity of tigers, leopards or any other cause for alarm, the golden jackal emits a cry that has been variously transliterated as ""pheal"", ""phion"" or ""phnew"". When hunting in a pack, the dominant jackal initiates an attack by repeatedly emitting a sound transliterated as ""okkay!"".
HabitatThe golden jackal is a generalist which adapts to local food abundances, a trait which allows it to occupy a variety of different habitats and exploit a large number of food resources. Its lithe body and long legs allows it to trot for large distances in search of food. It has the ability to forego liquids, and has been observed on islands with no fresh water. Although the most desert-adapted jackal, it can survive in temperatures as low as -25° or -35°, though it is not maximally adapted for living in snowy areas. Its preferred habitats consist of flat shrublands, humid reeded areas and floodplains. Although it generally avoids mountainous forests, it may enter alpine and subalpine areas during dispersal. In Turkey, Caucasus and Transcaucasia, it has been observed at heights of up to 1000 AMSL, particularly in areas where the climate forces shrublands into high elevations.
ReproductionThe golden jackal's courtship rituals are remarkably long, lasting 26–28 days, during which the breeding pair remains almost constantly together. In Transcaucasia, estrus begins in early February, and occasionally late January during warm winters. Spermatogenesis in males occurs 10–12 days before the females enter estrus, which lasts for 3–4 days. Females failing to mate during this time will undergo a loss of receptivity which lasts six to eight days.
Females undergoing their first estrus are often pursued by several males, which will quarrel amongst themselves. Prior to mating, the pair patrols and scent marks its territory. Copulation is preceded by the female holding her tail out and angled in such a way that the genitalia are exposed. The two approach each other, whimpering, lifting their tails and bristling their fur, displaying varying intensities of offensive and defensive behaviour. The female sniffs and licks the male's genitals, whilst the male nuzzles the female's fur. They may circle each other and fight briefly. The male then proceeds to lick the female's vulva, and repeatedly mounts her without erection or hip thrusting. Actual copulation takes place days later, and continues for about a week. The copulatory tie lasts 20–45 minutes in Eurasia, and roughly four minutes in Africa. Towards the end of estrus, the pair drifts apart, with the female often approaching the male in a comparatively more submissive manner. In anticipation of the role he will take in raising pups, the male regurgitates or surrenders any food he has to the female.
In Transcaucasia, pups are usually born from late March to late April, in northeastern Italy probably in late April, and between December–January in the Serengeti, though they are born at any time of year in Nepal. The number of pups in a single litter varies geographically; jackals in Uzbekistan give birth to 2-8 pups, in Bulgaria 4-7, in Michurinsk only 3-5, and in India the average is four. Pups are born with shut eyelids and soft fur, which ranges in colour from light grey to dark brown. At the age of one month, their fur is shed and replaced with a new reddish coloured pelt with black speckles. Their eyes typically open after 8–11 days, with the ears erecting after 10–13 days. The eruption of adult dentition is completed after five months. The pups have a fast growth rate; at the age of two days, they weigh 201–214 g, 560–726 g at one month, and 2700–3250 g at four months.
The length of the nursing period varies; in the Caucasus it lasts 50–70 days, while in Tajikistan it lasts up to 90 days. The lactation period ends in mid-July, though in some areas it ends in early August. In Eurasia, the pups begin to eat solid food at the age of 15–20 days, while in Africa they begin after a month. Weaning starts at the age of two months, and ends at four months. At this stage, the pups are semi-independent, venturing up to 50 metres from the den, even sleeping in the open. Their playing behaviour becomes increasingly more aggressive, with the pups competing for rank, which is established after six months. The female feeds the pups more frequently than the male or helpers do, though the presence of the latter allows the breeding pair to leave the den and hunt without leaving the litter unprotected. Once the lactation period concludes, the female drives off the pups. Pups born late remain with their mother until early autumn, at which point they leave either singly or in groups of two to four individuals.
FoodThe golden jackal rarely hunts in groups, though packs of 8–12 jackals consisting of more than one family have been observed in the summer periods in Transcaucasia. When hunting singly, the golden jackal will trot around an area, occasionally stopping to sniff and listen. Once prey is located, it will conceal itself, quickly approach, then pounce. When hunting in pairs or packs, jackals run parallel to their prey and overtake it in unison. When hunting aquatic rodents or birds, they will run along both sides of narrow rivers or streams, driving their prey from one jackal to another. The golden jackal rarely catches hares, as they are faster than it. Gazelle mothers are formidable when defending their young against single jackals, which are much more successful in hunting gazelle fawns when working in pairs. Jackal pairs will methodically search for concealed gazelle fawns within herds, tall grass, bushes and other likely hiding places.
Although it is known to kill animals up to three times its own weight, the golden jackal overall targets mammalian prey much less frequently than the black-backed jackal. Upon capturing large prey, the golden jackal makes no attempt to kill its prey, but rips open its belly and eats the entrails. Small prey is typically killed by shaking, though snakes may be eaten alive from the tail end. The golden jackal often carries away more food than it can consume, and caches the surplus, which is generally recovered within 24 hours. When foraging for insects, the golden jackal turns over dung piles to find dung beetles. During the dry seasons, it excavates dung balls to reach the larvae within. Grasshoppers and flying termites are caught either by pouncing or are caught in mid-air. It is fiercely intolerant of other scavengers, having been known to dominate vultures on kills. It can singly hold dozens of vultures at bay by threatening, snapping and lunging at them.The golden jackal is an omnivorous and opportunistic forager; its diet varies according to season and habitat. In Bharatpur, India, over 60% of its diet consists of rodents, birds and fruit, while 80% of its diet consists of rodents, reptiles and fruit in Kanha. In the Caucasus and Transcaucasia, the golden jackal primarily hunts hares and mouse-like rodents, as well as pheasants, francolins, ducks, coots, moorhens and passerines.
Vegetable matter eaten by jackals in these areas includes fruits, such as pears, hawthorn, dogwood and the cones of common medlars. It is implicated in the destruction of grapes, watermelons, muskmelons and nuts. Near the Vakhsh River, the jackal's spring diet consists almost exclusively of plant bulbs and the roots of wild sugar cane, while in winter it feeds on the fruit stones of wild stony olives. In the edges of the Karakum Desert, the golden jackal feeds on gerbils, lizards, snakes, fish and muskrats. Karakum jackals also eat the fruits of wild stony olives, mulberry and dried apricots, as well as watermelons, muskmelons, tomatoes and grapes. In Hungary, its most frequent prey animals are common voles and bank voles. Information on the diet of the golden jackal in northeastern Italy is scant, but it certainly preys on small roe deer and hares.
In west Africa, it mostly confines itself to small prey, such as hares, rats, ground squirrels and grass cutters. Other prey items include lizards, snakes, and ground-nesting birds, such as francolins and bustards. It also consumes a large amount of insects, including dung beetles, larvae, termites and grasshoppers. It will also kill young gazelles, duikers and warthogs. In East Africa, it consumes invertebrates and fruit, though 60% of its diet consists of rodents, lizards, snakes, birds, hares and Thompson's gazelles.
During the wildebeest calving season, golden jackals will feed almost exclusively on their afterbirth. In the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, less than 20% of its diet comes from scavenging. In Israel, golden jackals have been shown to be significant predators of snakes, including venomous snakes; an increase in snakebites occurred during a period of poisoning campaign against golden jackals while a decrease in snakebites occurred once the poisoning ceased.
During British rule, sportsmen in India and Iraq would hunt jackals on horseback with hounds as a substitute for the fox hunting of their native England. Although not considered as beautiful as English red foxes, golden jackals were esteemed for their endurance in the chase, with one pursuit having been recorded to have lasted 3½ hours. India's weather and terrain also added further challenges to jackal hunters not present in England; the hounds of India were rarely in the same good condition as English hounds were, and although the golden jackal has a strong odour, the terrain of northern India was not good in retaining scent. Also, unlike foxes, golden jackals were documented to feign death when caught, and could be ferociously protective of their captured packmates. Jackals were hunted in three ways: with greyhounds, with mixed packs and with foxhounds. Hunting jackals with greyhounds offered poor sport, as greyhounds were too fast for jackals, and mixed packs were too difficult to control. British hunters distinguished between three types of jackal; the city scavenger, which was slow and smelly, and which the dogs did not like to follow; the "village jack," which was faster, more alert, and less odorous; and the open-country jack which was still faster, cleaner, and provided better sport.
Some indigenous people of India, such as the Kolis and Vaghirs of Gujarat and Rajastan and the Narikuravas in Tamil Nadu, hunt and eat golden jackals, but the majority of South Asian cultures consider the animal unclean. The orthodox "dharma" texts forbid the eating of jackals, as they have five nails. In the former Soviet Union, jackals are not actively hunted, and are usually captured incidentally during the hunting of other animals by means of traps or shooting during drives. In the Trans-Caucasus, jackals are captured with large fishing hooks baited with meat, suspended 75–100 cm from the ground with wire. The jackals can only reach the meat by jumping, and are hooked by the lip or jaw.
EvolutionThe golden jackal is scantily represented in the fossil record, and its direct ancestor is unknown; two previous candidates, "Canis kuruksaensis" and "C. arnensis", were demonstrated to be more closely related to the coyote than the jackal. Jackal-like fossils appear in South Africa up to the Early Pleistocene, though remains identifiable as the golden jackal only appear beginning in the Middle Pleistocene. The absence of jackal fossils in Europe, the Caucasus and Transcaucasia, areas where the species currently resides, indicates that the species is a relatively recent arrival. However, its presence in the Balkan peninsula is probably quite ancient, as fossil finds in Croatia indicate that the species has been established in the Dalmatian Coast since the Late Pleistocene or early Holocene. The jackal likely entered the Balkans during the last glacial maximum through a land bridge on the Bosphorus.
The golden jackal is the most typical member of the genus "Canis", being of medium size and having no outstanding features. Though less basal than the black-backed and side-striped jackals, it is nonetheless a somewhat less specialised species than the grey wolf, as indicated by its relatively short facial region, weaker tooth row and the more weakly developed projections of the skull. These features are connected to the jackal's diet of small birds, rodents, small vertebrates, insects and carrion. The characteristics of the golden jackal's skull and genetic composition indicate a closer affinity to the grey wolf and coyote than to the black-backed jackal, side-striped jackal and Ethiopian wolf.
In captivity, the golden jackal is capable of hybridising with the coyote, though such hybrids become infertile at the second generation. In contrast, the golden jackal appears to have unlimited fertility with dogs and wolves. The Sulimov dog is an example of such a hybrid. Although hybridisation between golden jackals and grey wolves has never been observed, evidence of such occurrences was discovered through mtDNA analysis on jackals and wolves in Senegal and Bulgaria.
CulturalThe Ancient Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, was portrayed as a jackal-headed man, or as a jackal wearing ribbons and holding a flagellum. Anubis was always shown as a jackal or dog colored black, the color of regeneration, death, and the night. It was also the color the body turned during mummification. The reason for Anubis' animal model being canine is based on what the ancient Egyptians themselves observed of the creature - dogs and jackals often haunted the edges of the desert, especially near the cemeteries where the dead were buried. In fact, the Egyptians are thought to have begun the practice of making elaborate graves and tombs to protect the dead from desecration by jackals. Duamutef, one of the Four Sons of Horus and a protection god of the Canopic jars, was also portrayed as having jackal-like features.
Golden jackals appear prominently in Indian folklore and ancient texts, such as the "Jakatas" and "Panchatantra", where they are often portrayed as intelligent and wily creatures. One popular Indian saying describes the jackal as "the sharpest among beasts, the crow among birds, and the barber among men". To hear a jackal howl when embarking on an early morning journey was considered to be a sign of impending good fortune, as was seeing a jackal crossing a road from the left. In Hinduism, the golden jackal is portrayed as the familiar of several deities, the most common of which being Chamunda, the emaciated, devouring goddess of the cremation grounds. Another deity associated with jackals is Kali, who inhabits the cremation ground and is surrounded by millions of jackals. According to the "Tantrasara", when offered animal flesh, Kali appears before the officiant in the form of a jackal. The goddess Shivatudi is depicted with a jackal's head.
The Authorized King James Version of the Bible never mentions jackals, though this could be due to a translation error. The AVs of Isiah, Micah, Job and Malachi mention "wild beasts" and "dragons" crying in desolate houses and palaces. The original Hebrew words used are "lyim" and "tan", respectively. According to biologist Michael Bright, "tan" is more likely referring to jackals than dragons, as the word is frequently used throughout the AV to describe a howling animal associated with desolation and abandoned habitations, which is consistent with the golden jackal's vast vocal repertoire and its occasional habit of living in abandoned buildings. Jeremiah makes frequent references to jackals by using the word "shu'al", which can mean both jackal and fox. Although the AV translates the word as fox, the behaviour described is more consistent with jackals, as shown in the books of Lamentations and Psalms, in which references are made to the "shu'al's" habit of eating corpses in battlefields.
Some authors have put forth that because of the general scarcity and elusiveness of foxes in Israel, the author of the Book of Judges may have actually been describing the much more common golden jackals when narrating how Samson tied torches to the tails of 300 foxes to make them destroy the vineyards of the Philistines. According to an ancient Ethiopian folktale, jackals and man first became enemies shortly before the Great Flood, when Noah initially refused to allow jackals into the ark, thinking they were unworthy of being saved, until being commanded by God to do so.
In Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories collected in "The Jungle Book", the character Tabaqui is a jackal despised by the Sioni wolf pack, due to his mock cordiality, scavenging habits and his subservience to Shere Khan. His name likely stems from tabáqi kūtta, meaning "dish dog".
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