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Do jackals use babysitters?

The Egyptian god Anubis had the head of a jackal and body of a man.
The Egyptian god Anubis had the head of a jackal and body of a man.
©iStockphoto/AmandaLewis

­In ancient Egyptian culture, the god Anubis ruled over cemeteries and protected bodies in the afterlife. Standing tall and foreboding with the head of a jackal and the body of a man, the patron deity of mummification held a crook-shaped flagellum of Osiris to symbolize his authority in the underworld. Certainly, jackals were predominant along the landscape in ancient Egypt considering that they were the most abundant wild dog, or Canid, in Africa in those days. The Canid family includes the jackal, wolf, fox and wild dog. Today, their habitat has shrunk due to industrialization and development, but jackals remain among the least threatened wild African canid species.

Three species of jackals roam sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia and southeast Europe. The tawny golden jackal prowls in the open, grassy plains; black-backed jackals with signature dark stripes down their spines inhabit the savanna from Sudan to South Africa; the side-striped species prefers to prowl near water sources in dense­ vegetation [source: African Wildlife Fund]. Though some adult jackals lead solitary lives, males and females may also mate for life. Jackal packs follow a looser hierarchy than the rigid ­wolf pack organization; they're usually made up of a mating pair, their offspring and, in larger packs, nonbreeding adults.

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­Females give birth to litters between four and six pups, which she hides in burrows or dens for protection. Jackal pups are most vulnerable from birth until around 14 weeks. For the first two months, adults feed the pups regurgitated food like baby birds; an omnivorous species, jackals may eat anything from small carrion to insects and garbage. Adults return to the den every couple of hours to check up on the pups, and even after they're weaned, pups stay close by adults for the remainder of their first year.

Though male jackals will spend time with their offspring in their burrow, the females bear most of the responsibility for postnatal care. Just like energy-strapped human mothers will call in reinforcements to assist with those first crucial weeks following childbirth, so might jackals (particularly of the black-backed species) call up the babysitters.

Non-breeding adult jackals may babysit pups.
Non-breeding adult jackals may babysit pups.
©­iStockphoto/kturley

­In larger packs of jackals, nonbreeding females and sometimes older male offspring will act as babysitters for the young. In the first weeks after birth, the babysitting jackal may guard the mother and her young outside the den, alerting them to incoming predators or other dangers. The babysitter may also bring back food to the burrow, though it's a rare occurrence. This form of cooperation is called alloparental care.

After as little as three weeks, the mother may leave the young in the care of the babysitter and return to hunting. Since breeding females in a pack are stronger and more agile hunters than their nonbreeding counterparts, their hunting activity is important for the pack's survival [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri].

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Jackals are the only known species of wild dog to practice alloparental care. African wild dogs, red and Arctic foxes, and gray and Ethiopian wolves also have displayed babysitting behavior as a way of ensuring pup survival until weaning. Different species may integrate various babysitting dynamics, depending on pack size, species, habitat and food abundance. For instance, the likelihood of black-backed jackal pups' survival was directly proportional to the number of helper adults in the pack; the same results didn't hold for golden jackals [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri]. Ethiopian wolf packs practice alloparental care on a larger scale with a single female producing a litter each year, and the entire pack caring for the offspring [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri].

Canid researchers have pinpointed a threshold of success for alloparental care in packs of wild dogs. If the ratio of adults to pups is too low, the pack can't spare nonbreeding adults to stick by the den instead of actively hunting or protecting pack territory. An examination of 165 canid litters calculated that two pups to every one adult was the lowest ratio that could allow for babysitting without losing resources [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri].

Other mammals, including bison, elk and dolphins also incorporate forms of babysitting in family groups [source: Dunbar, Knight and Power]. Not surprisingly, monkey and ape -- not to mention human -- communities also practice female cooperative care. This phenomenon makes sense given the toll that reproduction, lactation and weaning take on the female body. Likewise, babysitting behavior not only helps ensure the survival of the young but also the female.

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Sources

  • Dunbar, Robin Ian MacDonald; Knight, Chris and Power, Camilla. "The evolution of culture." Edinburgh University Press. 1999. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=BRyMgrYx3EUC
  • "Jackal." African Wildlife Fund. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/jackal
  • "Jackals of the African Crater." Nature. Public Broadcasting Service. February 2000. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/jackals-of-the-african-crater/introduction/2008/
  • Hart, George. "The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses." Routledge. 2005. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=GG3qfiUY3xQC
  • Macdonald, David Whyte and Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio. "The Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids." Oxford University Press. 2004. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=UeVsOLg11iEC
  • Smithers, R.H.N., Skinner, J.D., and Chimimba, Christian T. "The Mammals of the Southern African Sub-Region." Cambridge University Press. 2005. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=iqwEYkTDZf4C

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