AppearanceThe black-backed jackal is a fox-like canid with a slender body, long legs and large ears. It is similar to the closely related side-striped jackal and more distantly related golden jackal, though its skull and dentition are more robust and the incisors much sharper. It weighs 6–13 kg , stands 38–48 cm at the shoulder and measures 67.3–81.2 cm in body length.
The base colour is reddish brown to tan, which is particularly pronounced on the flanks and legs. A black saddle intermixed with silvery hair extends from the shoulders to the base of the tail. A long black stripe extending along the flanks separates the saddle from the rest of the body, and can be used to differentiate individuals. The tail is bushy and tipped with black. The lips, throat, chest and inner surface of the limbs are white. The winter coat is a much deeper reddish brown. Albino specimens occasionally occur. The hair of the face measures 10–15 mm in length, and lengthens to 30–40 mm on the rump. The guard hairs of the back are 60 mm on the shoulder, decreasing to 40 mm at the base of the tail. The hairs of the tail are the longest, measuring 70 mm in length.
NamingIn English, the species is known by several different names, including saddle-backed, grey, silver-backed, red, and golden jackal . The Latin ''mesomelas'' is a compound consisting of ''meso'' and ''melas'' .As of 2005, two subspecies are recognised by MSW3. These subspecies are geographically separated by a gap which extends northwards from Zambia to Tanzania:
BehaviorThe black-backed jackal is a monogamous and territorial animal, whose social organisation greatly resembles that of the golden jackal. However, the assistance of elder offspring in helping raise the pups of their parents has a greater bearing on pup survival rates than in the latter species. The basic social unit is a monogamous mated pair which defends its territory through laying faeces and urine on range boundaries. Scent marking is usually done in tandem, and the pair will aggressively expel intruders. Such encounters are normally prevented, as the pair will vocalise to advertise its presence in a given area. It is a highly vocal species, particularly in Southern Africa. Sounds made by the species include yelling, yelping, woofing, whining, growling and cackling. It communicates with group members and advertises its presence via a high-pitched whining howl, and expresses alarm through an explosive cry followed by shorter high-pitched yelps. This sound is particularly frantic when mobbing a leopard. In areas where the black-backed jackal is sympatric with the African golden wolf, the species does not howl, instead relying more on yelps. In contrast, black-backed jackals in Southern Africa howl much like golden jackals. When trapped, it cackles like a fox.
HabitatThe species generally shows a preference for open areas with little dense vegetation, though it occupies a wide range of habitats, from arid coastal deserts to areas with more than 2000 mm of rainfall. It also occurs in farmlands, savannas, open savanna mosaics and alpine areas.
ReproductionThe mating season takes place from late May to August, with a gestation period of 60 days. Pups are born from July to October. Summer births are thought to be timed to coincide with population peaks of vlei rats and four-striped grass mice, while winter births are timed for ungulate calving seasons. Litters consist of 1-9 pups, which are born blind. For the first three weeks of their lives, the pups are kept under constant surveillance by their mother, while the father and elder offspring provide food. The pups open their eyes after 8-10 days and emerge from the den at the age of three weeks. They are weaned at 8-9 weeks, and can hunt by themselves at the age of six months. Sexual maturity is attained at 11 months, though few black-backed jackals reproduce in their first year. Unlike golden jackals, which have comparatively amicable intrapack relationships, black-backed jackal pups become increasingly quarrelsome as they age, and establish more rigid dominance hierarchies. Dominant pups will appropriate food, and become independent at an earlier age. The grown pups may disperse at one year of age, though some will remain in their natal territories to assist their parents in raising the next generation of pups. The average lifespan in the wild is seven years, though captive specimens can live twice as long.
FoodBlack-backed jackals are omnivores, which feed on invertebrates, such as beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, termites, millipedes, spiders and scorpions. They will also feed on mammals, such as rodents, hares and young antelopes up to the size of topi calves. They will also feed on carrion, lizards, and snakes. A pair of black-backed jackals in the Kalahari desert was observed to kill a kori bustard and, on a separate occasion, a black mamba via prolonged harassment of the snake and crushing of the snake's head. Black-backed jackals will occasionally feed on fruits and berries. In coastal areas, they will feed on beached marine mammals, seals, fish and mussels. A single jackal is capable of killing a healthy adult impala. Adult dik-dik and Thomson's gazelles seem to be the upper limit of their killing capacity, though they will target larger species if those are sick, with one pair having been observed to harass a crippled bull rhinoceros. They typically kill tall prey by biting at the legs and loins, and will frequently go for the throat. In Serengeti woodlands, they feed heavily on African grass rats. In East Africa, during the dry season, they hunt the young of gazelles, impalas, topi, tsessebe and warthogs. In South Africa, black-backed jackals frequently prey on antelopes , carrion, hares, hoofed livestock, insects, and rodents. They will also prey on small carnivores, such as mongooses, polecats and wildcats. On the coastline of the Namib Desert, jackals feed primarily on marine birds , marine mammals , fish, and insects. Like most canids, the black-backed jackal caches surplus food.Due to livestock losses to jackals, many hunting clubs were opened in South Africa in the 1850s. Black-backed jackals have never been successfully eradicated in hunting areas, despite strenuous attempts to do so with dogs, poison and gas. Black-backed jackal coursing was first introduced to the Cape Colony in the 1820s by Lord Charles Somerset who, as well as an avid fox hunter, sought a more effective method of managing jackal populations, as shooting proved ineffective. Coursing jackals also became a popular pastime in the Boer Republics. In the western Cape in the early 1900s, dogs bred by crossing foxhounds, lurchers and borzoi were used.
Spring traps with metal jaws were also effective, though poisoning by strychnine became more common by the late 19th century. Strychnine poisoning was initially problematic, as the solution had a bitter taste, and could only work if swallowed. Consequently, many jackals learned to regurgitate poisoned baits, thus inciting wildlife managers to use the less detectable crystal strychnine rather than liquid. The poison was usually placed within sheep carcasses or in balls of fat, with great care being taken to avoid leaving any human scent on them. Black-backed jackals were not a popular quarry in the 19th century, and are rarely mentioned in hunter's literature. By the turn of the century, jackals became increasingly popular quarry as they encroached upon human habitations after sheep farming and veld burning diminished their natural food sources. Although poisoning had been effective in the late 19th century, its success rate in eliminating jackals waned in the 20th century, as jackals seemed to be learning to distinguish poisoned foods.
The Tswana people often made hats and cloaks out of black-backed jackal skins. Between 1914 and 1917, 282,134 jackal pelts were produced in South Africa. Demand for pelts grew during the First World War, and were primarily sold in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Jackals in their winter fur were in great demand, though animals killed by poison were less valued, as their fur would shed.
EvolutionThe earliest fossil carnivores that can be linked with some certainty to canids are the Eocene miacids, which lived some 38 to 56 million years ago. The miacids later diverged into caniforms and feliforms, with the former line leading to such genera as the coyote-sized ''Mesocyon'' of the Oligocene , the fox-like ''Leptocyon'' and the wolf-like ''Tomarctus'' which inhabited North America some 10 million years ago. The black-backed jackal has occupied eastern and southern Africa for at least 2-3 million years, as shown by fossil deposits in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Specimens from fossil sites in Transvaal are almost identical to their modern counterparts, but have slightly different nasal bones. As no fossils have been found north of Ethiopia, it is likely that the species has always been sub-Saharan in distribution. The black-backed jackal is relatively unspecialised, and can thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, as its kidneys are well adapted for water deprivation. It is however more adapted to a carnivorous diet than the other jackals, as shown by its well-developed carnassial shear and the longer cutting blade of the premolars.
Juliet Clutton-Brock classed the black-backed jackal as being closely related to the side-striped jackal, based on cranial and dental characters. Studies on allozyme divergence within the Canidae indicate that the black-backed jackal and other members of the genus ''Canis'' are separated by a considerable degree of genetic distance. Further studies show a large difference in mitochondrial DNA sequences between black-backed jackals and other sympatric "jackal" species, consistent with divergence 2.3–4.5 million years ago. Its genome indicates that, along with the side-striped jackal, it forms a basal clade behind the African wild dog and dhole, both of which are more closely related to the remaining members of the genus ''Canis'' than the two jackal species are, despite being placed in the genera ''Lycaon'' and ''Cuon'', respectively.
Because of this deep divergence between the black-backed jackal and the rest of the "wolf-like" canids, it has been proposed to change the species' generic name from ''Canis'' to ''Lupulella''.
CulturalBlack-backed jackals feature prominently in the folklore of the Khoikhoi, where it is often paired with the lion, whom it frequently outsmarts or betrays with its superior intelligence. One story explains that the black-backed jackal gained its dark saddle when it offered to carry the Sun on its back. An alternative account comes from the ǃKung people, whose folklore tells that the jackal received the burn on its back as a punishment for its scavenging habits. 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.
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