Italy receives a surprise visit from a worldly dog: the golden jackal

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Italian conservationists were taken by surprise in December when a new creature unexpectedly appeared: a golden jackal.

The traditional range of the jackal, which is the size of a large dog, is the Middle East, parts of Asia and the Balkans. But in recent years, we have seen it as far as Norway, Austria and the Netherlands.

Why we wrote this

Golden jackals, once found mainly in the eastern Balkans, are now spreading throughout Europe. It’s an ecological puzzle that could be linked to climate change, changing land use, or the hunt for rival predators.

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why jackals are colonizing so many new territories. But they agree it’s almost unprecedented.

Many believe that the range expansion is propelled by the persecution of wolves in Europe. They believe that the jackal is taking advantage of an ecological niche that has thus opened up.

But some scientists suggest other possible factors, including the fact that Eastern European countries had to reduce their use of poison bait when they joined the European Union. Moreover, in much of Europe, poor quality marginal farmland has been abandoned, providing exactly the kind of scrubby woods and open pastures that jackals like.

Global warming could also be a factor. “We know that jackals don’t like deep snow,” says conservationist and jackal expert Nathan Ranc. “Climate change can give them an extra boost.”

There is no shortage of wildlife in the hills and forests of Tuscany, in the heart of Italy. But Italian conservationists were taken by surprise in December when a new creature unexpectedly appeared: a golden jackal.

The size of a large dog, the animal’s traditional range is the Middle East, parts of Asia and the Balkans.

But in recent years, the species has seen a remarkable expansion from its Balkan strongholds north and west, ending up in places as far apart as Norway, Austria and the Netherlands.

Why we wrote this

Golden jackals, once found mainly in the eastern Balkans, are now spreading throughout Europe. It’s an ecological puzzle that could be linked to climate change, changing land use, or the hunt for rival predators.

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why this secretive and shy animal is colonizing so many new territories. But they agree it’s almost unprecedented.

“This is one of the biggest range expansions for a mammal that we’ve ever seen, anywhere in the world,” says Nathan Ranc, ecologist and jackal expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Golden jackals have been in Europe for thousands of years, but restricted to small areas in the Balkans and Greece.

“The only other species it could be compared to is a similar expansion of coyotes in the United States”

An ecological puzzle

Many scientists believe that the golden jackal’s range expansion is propelled by the same factor as the coyote‘s – wolf persecution.

They believe the jackal – the next canid on the scale in terms of size – is taking advantage of an ecological niche that has opened up as a result of wolves being shot, trapped and poisoned across much of their historic range in Europe.

“We think there is a correlation,” says Dr. Ranc. “This is what happens when the population of a dominant carnivore declines. We believe that the persecution of wolves was a trigger. The jackal has a lot in common with the coyote.

John Linnell, another ecologist who has studied the phenomenon, is not so sure.

“The timing doesn’t seem to be quite right, given that wolves are reappearing in many parts of Europe,” says Dr Linnell, from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

He notes that wolves have been persecuted for over a century, but the expansion of golden jackal populations has occurred relatively recently. Golden jackals were first spotted in Norway last year, marking the northernmost extent of their expansion so far.

He thinks other factors are at play, including the fact that once they joined the EU, Eastern European countries had to reduce their use of poison bait.

“Jackals are scavengers, so a reduction in poison use would benefit them, he says.

A change in land use also likely helped the golden jackals. Across much of Europe, poor quality marginal farmland has been abandoned, providing exactly the kind of scrubby woodland and open pasture that jackals love.

Global warming could also be a factor. ‘We know that jackals don’t like deep snow,’ says Dr Ranc. “Climate change can give them an extra boost.”

They are certainly able to adapt to many different environments. In addition to appearing in Italy, they have been observed in Denmark, Poland, France and Austria.

In Germany it was reported last month that golden jackals are now breeding, while in the Netherlands a jackal was photographed by a farmer planting seed potatoes in May.

“At first I thought it was a fox, then a wolf,” Jan Kolhorn told NOS, the Dutch national television channel.

“He’s an incredible animal”

Unlike Burmese pythons in Florida or American mink and nutria in Europe, golden jackals are not an invasive alien species, experts say. “To be invasive, a species must be transported by humans, knowingly or unknowingly. But jackals move of their own volition,” says Dr. Ranc.

Scientists say the arrival of the golden jackal should not be a cause for concern, noting that they rarely seem to prey on domestic animals such as sheep.

“A jackal might take a chicken or a domestic rabbit, maybe a little lamb, but it’s not an animal that should worry farmers very much,” says Professor Luigi Boitani from the University of Rome.

He is chairman of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, a group of scientists who study bears, wolves, lynxes, wolverines and golden jackals. “It’s an incredible animal, capable of large-scale dispersal.”

In Tuscany, jackal sightings were met with joy rather than dread.

Marco Morelli, director of the Fondazione Parsec, an environmental organization, called it “a stroke of luck” that the animal was filmed.

While global warming may not be the main driving factor behind golden jackal range expansion, it is likely to have an increasing effect on the animals in the future, says Dr. Linnel.

“We will see other species expand their range due to climate change. It is a natural process. And countries will have to accommodate them.

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