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Wolves - Taxonomy & genetics

Originally classified in a separate genus Simenia (Gray, 1868; Allen, 1939), the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is one of four Canis species in Africa, readily distinguishable from jackals (C. aureus, C. mesomelas, and C. adustus) by its larger size, relatively longer legs, distinctive reddish coat and white markings (Sillero-Zubiri & Gottelli, 1994).

Although it is often called Simien fox or red fox, DNA phylogenetic analysis revealed that the Ethiopian wolf is more closely related to the grey wolf (C. lupus) and the coyote (C. latrans) than to any African canid (Clutton-Brock et al., 1976).

Most likely, the Ethiopian wolf evolved from a grey wolf-like ancestor that crossed to northern Africa from Eurasia as recently as 100,000 years ago (Gottelli et al., 1994), when Afroalpine habitats in Ethiopia covered vast extensions. There are fossils of wolf-like canids from the late Pleistocene in Eurasia (Kurten, 1968), but unfortunately no fossil records exist for C. simensis

Its low genetic variability, relative to other canid species, suggests that small population sizes characterized its recent evolution. Most recent genetic analyses do not support the thesis two subspecies: C. s. simensis north-west of the Rift Valley and C. s. citernii south-east of the Rift Valley (Coetzee 1977; Gottelli et al., 1994; Gottelli et al., 2004).

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