Jackals: Canine Survivors and Tricksters of Folklore

Black-backed, side-striped and golden jackals are all listed as species of "least concern" on the IUCN's Red List, which means jackals are thriving in the wild today. Massimo Mei/Getty Images

When you hear the word "canine," what image comes to mind? Perhaps a German shepherd brazenly sniffing through your luggage at the airport? Or a wolf howling at the moon? What about a ... jackal? Yes, the 36 species of the Canidae family (also known as "canines" or "canids") includes dogs, wolves, foxes and the oft-forgotten jackal.

Jackals feature prominently in traditional folklore around the world, often as wily tricksters who are up to no good. Jackals inhabit stories like "The Blue Jackal" in the Panchatantra, the ancient Sanskrit fables featuring the animals of India. They also appear in the oral traditions of the Khoi people of southern Africa and even cause mayhem in a TV series spinoff of "The Lion King."


But the fact is that jackals are survivors, successfully thriving because of their resourcefulness and adaptability. Jackals live by their wits and their reputation as the tricksters of the animal world is due to their keen ability to survive.

Types of Jackals

There are three main species of jackals that roam planet Earth, according to Professor Claudio Sillero, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Canid Specialist Group, in an email interview.

One of these breeds is the black-backed jackal (Lupulella mesomelas), whose habitat ranges between Sudan and Tanzania in eastern Africa and also between Angola and South Africa. Another is the side-striped jackal (Lupulella adusta), located between Senegal in western Africa and South Africa. And lastly, we have the golden jackal (Canis aureus), which can be found widely across Asia and Europe. The African golden wolf (Canis anthus) was also considered to be a part of the golden jackal family, until a 2015 study found that they were a separate species.


The Diet of the Jackal

Golden jackals primarily consume "small mammals" as well as dead animals, either wild or domestic, according to Nathan Ranc, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University and Fondazione Edmund Mach, in an email interview. Ranc's expertise is in golden jackal ecology and he's a member of the IUCN/SSC Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe. Jackals are "opportunistic" creatures, according to Sillero, who "will feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, but may occasionally also take larger prey, such as antelopes."

Jackals have few natural predators, but one of them is us: humans. "Humans are by far the main mortality factor, mostly through hunting and poaching, but also as a result of traffic accidents," says Ranc, adding that "wolves are known to kill golden jackals."


Jackals Live in Families

Jackals, like other canines such as wolves, form family units or packs. Jackal family units are relatively small compared to wolf packs, which may span multiple generations and include a complex pack hierarchy.

Each jackal family unit has a dominant male-female pair, which breeds once every year, according to Sillero. Pregnancy lasts 60 days for a female jackal. Sillero says that jackals are "largely monogamous" and notes that older offspring "may help raise the pups, [which] will be dependent for food and protection for the first five to six months of their lives." According to the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, golden jackals mate between February and April, typically giving birth to a litter of four to eight pups.


Jackal Habitats

On the whole, jackals are a pretty adaptable bunch as they roam around a variety of habitats all across the globe, though they favor "open areas" suitable to roaming, according to Sillero. Ranc says that golden jackals in Europe "reach the highest densities at low elevations" less than 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) and typically settle "in wetlands, coastal areas or extensive agricultural landscapes with little snow, intermediate proximity of human settlements and in absence of wolves." According to the IUCN, side-striped jackals in Africa favor shrubland, forests, grassland and savanna.

Sillero says that jackals are "territorial" animals that are "typically defending a home range." But Ranc notes that jackals can travel long distances (up to hundreds of kilometers) in search of mates and suitable habitats. According to Sillero, jackals are active during the day and night, which makes them both diurnal and nocturnal creatures. Then again, this tendency varies by species. For example, the black-backed jackal are more active during the daytime, whereas the side-striped jackal is entirely nocturnal.


Black-backed, side-striped and golden jackals are all listed as species of "least concern" on the IUCN's Red List, so jackals are alive and thriving.

Jackal Appearance and Genetics

The appearance of jackals varies from species to species. Their names offer some not-so-subtle hints: golden jackals have a coat ranging from yellow to gold with a tinge of brown, while black-backed jackals have a tuft of black hair that runs along their backs and boast dark tipped-tails. Side-striped jackals often sport a white stripe between their elbow and hip as well as dark tails with a white tip. Jackals generally range from 13-28 pounds (6-13 kilograms) in weight, according to Sillero. So they're considerably smaller than wolves, which are anywhere from 33-132 pounds (15-60 kilograms).

But what about the jackal's genetic relationship to its fellow canines? "Jackals are related to other wolf-like canids, such as African wolves, Ethiopian wolves, grey wolves and coyotes," says Sillero. Sillero says that while hybridization — or interbreeding between jackals and other canines that results in offspring — may occur, it's pretty unusual. Apparently, breeding between wild jackals and dogs was first spotted in Croatia in 2015. However, humans have intentionally bred jackals and dogs, resulting in the Shalaika (or Sulimov) dog, which is a Russian dog with enhanced sniffing capabilities used to detect explosives in airport security.


Sillero notes that jackals usually live anywhere from 6-9 years, but can reach up to 13 years of age.

The Rise of the Golden Jackal

One species of jackal, however, has proven to be particularly formidable in expanding its reach across the Northern Hemisphere: the golden jackal. Reports have emerged in recent years of the golden jackal's rapid increase across Europe. Ranc says that the expansion of golden jackals began after World War II and increased rapidly from the 1970s onward. "The species is present throughout the Southeastern part of the continent and reproduce as far north as Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy and Slovenia," says Ranc. Ranc notes that a new population cluster of jackals is forming in Estonia, and pockets of jackals are also "being recorded throughout the continent e.g., in the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Switzerland."

Ranc estimates that the current number of golden jackals in Europe hovers between 97,000 and 117,000, though it's hard to know how many golden jackals there were previously. "However, country-level trends in hunting data suggest an exponential increase in jackal numbers," says Ranc. "For example, in Hungary, six jackals were shot in 1995, 140 in 2005 and 3,267 in 2015. In Croatia, the number of shot jackals increased by 25 percent between 2012 and 2015."


But just why has the golden jackal population been spreading like wildfire? It's a hot topic of research among experts in the field, who speculate that human activity may be partially to blame. "There is growing evidence that the historic persecution of grey wolves — a dominant competitor and potential predator of golden jackals — by humans...may have triggered the current expansion — a phenomenon called 'mesopredator release," said Ranc. "In addition, the fragmentation of previously dense, continuous forests in Southeastern Europe has created very suitable habitats for jackals."