A little predator

We were hurrying back to the lodge for breakfast when Stephen pointed to the right and brought the Landrover to a halt. A black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) stood surveying its surroundings. This was the second time I’d seen this tiny predator. Before I could switch on my camera (it takes geological ages to boot) it had started down-slope. I was not unhappy with the photo I got. I followed it as it walked on, and then sat down in the grass to scratch itself, just like any dog that you might have seen. The bliss on its face as it scratched was amazing. I wondered how closely related are the African black-backed jackals and domestic dogs.

By now the answer is pretty clear. They are in the same family: one that includes old-world dogs, wolves, and jackals. But within this family they are as different as they could be. According to a genetic study, the black-backed jackal is the basal form of this group of animals, meaning that it lies genetically closest to the parent species. Usually this means that its hunting grounds are closest to those of the parent group. The genetically more distant descendants usually diverge from the parent stock as they range further into geographically new territory. If this is true of jackals, wolves, and dogs, then the original canids inhabited East Africa. Coincidentally, this area was also inhabited by the parent group from which we humans come.

Sure enough, fossils show that black-backed jackals have been essentially unchanged for about 2.7 million years. That means that the tool-using Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis, and their successors, Homo erectus, would have seen essentially the same animal that I saw. Could they have taken the first steps to domesticate them? Just as we inherited tool-use, and possibly language, from our progenitor species, could we also have inherited the earliest forms of dogs?