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Golden Jackal

Canis aureus

by Jay Sharp

Jackal

Among the most resilient and resourceful of the Canidae family – which includes jackals, dogs, wolves, coyotes and foxes – the golden jackal can thrive in widely diverse habitats across extensive ranges. These include, for instance, said the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), environments as varied as the “semi-desert, short to medium grasslands and savannas in Africa; and forested, mangrove, agricultural, rural and semi-urban habitats in India and Bangladesh.”

By comparison, the side-striped jackal, distinguished by its dark, broadly striped sides and black, white-tipped tail, occupies moist savannahs, brushlands and marshes in central and southern Africa. The black-backed Jackal, marked by its silvery black fur back, occupies savannas and woodlands in southeastern and southern Africa.

Golden Jackal Characteristics

The golden jackal – the largest of the jackals – resembles a small wolf, but it has a comparatively more slender build, shorter legs and shorter tail. Its appearance varies considerably across its range.

  • Size and Weight: Shoulder height, roughly one and a half feet; length, two to three and one-half feet; weight, male, about 30 pounds maximum and female, roughly 10 percent less.
  • Body: Both sexes generally wolf-like in shape, but with proportionally longer torso; females, five pairs of teats.
  • Head: Relatively narrow skull, pointed muzzle, relatively thin canine teeth, fox-like ears.
  • Legs: Lean and nimble, well suited for running.
  • Tail: Full, about a foot in length.
  • Fur and Color: Fur short and coarse; color variable, but generally yellowish-gold coat, lighter in summer than in winter; back sometimes darker than the belly.
  • Senses: Excellent night vision (sees well in dawn and twilight hunts); acutely sensitive hearing (can detect small, potential prey moving in underground burrows); highly developed ability to smell (perhaps 100 times more sensitive than that of a human).

Range, Habitat and Diet

The golden jackal ranges across northern Africa, southeastern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, the Great Indian Desert, the Indian Subcontinent and western Indochina, occupying an environmental niche analogous to that of the coyote in the American Southwest. With its numbers reflecting its adaptability, the jackal’s population in the Indian Subcontinent alone exceeds 80,000. Its population in other ranges, while apparently still fairly abundant, has not been estimated. Although the golden jackal -- which includes 13 subspecies -- occupies a diversity of habitats, it seems to prefer arid, open country with grasslands, brush and scrub vegetation.

An opportunistic forager, the golden jackal capitalizes on every possible scavenging opportunity, often seizing on remnants of kills by the larger predators such as lions and leopards or even crocodiles. It may bury meat temporarily to hide it from competing scavengers. It preys, primarily at dawn and dusk, on small mammals and ground nesting birds as well as reptiles (including poisonous snakes) and even insects. With its mate, it may take the young of the larger animals, for instance, the gazelle. The jackal can run, in bursts, at speeds up to 20 miles per hour and, for long distances, up to 10 miles per hour. Denied carrion or prey, it feeds on fruits and seeds. Around
humans, it scavenges in garbage, searching out scraps of food. It may prey on small or newborn livestock.

Behavior and Life Cycle

The golden jackal forms a lifelong mating bond, with a pair leading a small and changeable pack of offspring. It establishes a territory, marking the boundaries with urine and feces. Highly verbal, particularly on moonlit night, it issues distinctive yelps, yaps and howls to call its mate or pack or to signal a kill. Jackal mates howl together to demonstrate their mutual commitment. Each pack develops its own distinctive suite of calls, which helps discourage competing packs from coming into accidental contact.

The breeding pair mates once a year, with the time depending on their particular range and the seasons. The male closely guards his mate through the breeding season. The female, with her pregnancy lasting a little over two months, digs a nursery den just before she gives birth. Typically, she delivers three to five soft furry pups, each blind and helpless for the first several days of its life. A faithful mother, she will nurse them for several weeks, never leaving them alone during that time. The male, with support from offspring from the den of the year before, helps the mother care for the newborn. The mother may change den sites every few weeks to minimize detection by predators.

About 10 days after their birth, the pups find their eyesight. About three weeks of age, they venture outside their den, at first pawing and wrestling clumsily but soon ambushing, pouncing and chasing gleefully. Over the next several weeks, they graduate to a diet that comprises, not only the milk produced by their mother, but also regurgitated food provided by both parents. After about three months, when the family abandons the den, the pups follow their still-nurturing parents, learning the trade of an opportunistic
forager.

At about six months of age, the pups have become competent hunters. They may remain with the family through the following year, helping with the next generation, while older siblings – with the males reaching sexual maturity within two years and the females, within one year – may leave the pack to seek out mates and begin producing their own families. If a pup reaches maturity, it may live for 10 or 15 years in the wild, perhaps a few years longer in captivity.

Perils

Although it may sometimes fall to larger predators or to human hunters, the golden jackal’s major peril is not predation. Its overriding threats are looming urbanization, industrialization and intensive agriculture. Its populations are dwindling, naturalists believe, across much of its range, except for national parks and sanctuaries, said the IUCN. The jackal “may persist for a while, but eventually disappear.” Nevertheless, it still ranks as a species of “Least Concern” by the IUCN.

Interesting Facts

  • The golden jackal crossbreeds readily with other members of the Canidae family, including dogs, coyotes and wolves.
  • The Russians have crossbred the golden jackal with the Siberian husky, and they use the hybrid for bomb sniffing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, capitalizing on the jackal’s superior sense of smell.
  • According to the Young People’s Trust for the Environment, the golden jackal, raised and nurtured from a pup, makes a good pet, even submitting to house-breaking, but it always behaves warily around a stranger.
  • The jackal will sometimes lead a lion to the larger prey, creating an opportunity to scavenge from the larger animal’s kill. This has led to the term “jackalling,” which is sometimes used to describe those humans who appear immediately after a disaster to loot a community.
  • The golden jackal has earned a place in the storied history of the human species. For instance, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Advent, “Numerous references may be found throughout the Bible to the jackal's howlings and gregarious habits.” According to Absolute Astronomy, “The Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, was portrayed as a jackal-headed man, or as a jackal wearing ribbons and holding a flagellum, a symbol of protection, in the crook of its arm.... ...it is thought that the Egyptians began the practice of making elaborate graves and tombs to protect the dead from desecration by jackals.”

 

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