Jackals are medium-sized omnivorous mammals of the genus Canis, which also includes wolves, coyotes and the domestic dog. While the word "jackal" has historically been used for many small canids, in modern use it most commonly refers to three species: the closely related black-backed jackal and side-striped jackal of sub-Saharan Africa, and the golden jackal of south-central Eurasia, which is more closely related to other members of the genus Canis.
Jackals and coyotes (sometimes called the "American jackal") are opportunistic omnivores, predators of small to medium-sized animals and proficient scavengers. Their long legs and curved canine teeth are adapted for hunting small mammals, birds, and reptiles, and their large feet and fused leg bones give them a physique well-suited for long-distance running, capable of maintaining speeds of 16 km/h (9.9 mph) for extended periods of time. Jackals are crepuscular, most active at dawn and dusk.
Their most common social unit is a monogamous pair, which defends its territory from other pairs by vigorously chasing intruding rivals and marking landmarks around the territory with their urine and feces. The territory may be large enough to hold some young adults, which stay with their parents until they establish their own territories. Jackals may occasionally assemble in small packs, for example, to scavenge a carcass, but they normally hunt either alone or in pairs.
Similarities between jackals and coyotes led Lorenz Oken, in the third volume of his Lehrbuch der Naturgeschichte (1815), to place these species into a new separate genus, Thos, named after the classical Greek word θώς "jackal", but his theory had little immediate impact on taxonomy at the time. Angel Cabrera, in his 1932 monograph on the mammals of Morocco, questioned whether or not the presence of a cingulum on the upper molars of the jackals and its corresponding absence in the rest of Canis could justify a subdivision of that genus. In practice, Cabrera chose the undivided-genus alternative and referred to the jackals as Canis instead of Thos.
Oken's Thos theory was revived in 1914 by Edmund Heller, who embraced the separate genus theory. Heller's names and the designations he gave to various jackal species and subspecies live on in current taxonomy, although the genus has been changed from Thos to Canis.
The wolf-like canids are a group of large carnivores that are genetically closely related because they all have 78 chromosomes. The group includes genus Canis, Cuon, and Lycaon. The members are the dog(C. lupus familiaris), gray wolf (C. lupus), coyote (C. latrans), golden jackal (C. aureus), Ethiopian wolf (C. simensis), black-backed jackal (C. mesomelas), side-striped jackal (C. adustus), dhole (Cuon alpinus), and African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). The latest recognized member is the African golden wolf (C. anthus), which was once thought to be an African branch of the golden jackal. As they possess 78 chromosomes, all members of the genus Canis (coyotes, wolves, jackals) are karyologically indistinguishable from each other, and from the dhole and the African hunting dog. The two African jackals are shown to be the most basal members of this clade, indicating the clade's origin from Africa.Canis arnensis arrived in Mediterranean Europe 1.9 million years ago and is probably the ancestor of modern jackals.
One writer proposes that the genus name for the two African jackals should be changed from Canis to Lupulella.
The intermediate size and shape of the Ethiopian wolf has at times led it to be regarded as a jackal, thus it has also been called the "red jackal" or the "Simien jackal".
The most lightly built jackal, it is considered to be the oldest living member of the genus Canis. It is the most aggressive of the jackals, being known to attack animal prey many times its own weight, and it has more quarrelsome intrapack relationships.
The jackal (likely the golden jackal, given its present range) is mentioned roughly 14 times in the Bible. It is frequently used as a literary device to illustrate desolation, loneliness, and abandonment, with reference to its habit of living in the ruins of former cities and other areas abandoned by humans. It is called "wild dog" in several translations of the Bible.
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