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Jackals, known in Hebrew as tanim, are members of the genus Canis which also includes wolves, coyotes and dogs. There are seven or eight species in this genus: three species of jackal, two or three of wolf (depending on whether the Ethiopian wolf is considered in the genus or not) and one of coyote. Some of these species are divided into subspecies, with the domesticated dog now thought to be a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). So dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are actually wolves, a bit hard to fathom it you think of my neighbor's Pekinese.
The jackal species that lives here is the golden jackal, Canis aureus (hatan hazahov), a widely dispersed canid species that is capable of living in close association with human populations. It is partly because of the golden jackal that we decided to make aliya.
We were staying at a guest house on the Carmel one evening in February 20 years ago and we decided to take a walk and watch the sun set into the Mediterranean. As we hiked we heard what sounded like a group of children laughing loudly. What were children doing out on the mountain with night coming? We tried to make our way to them, but when we approached they retreated; strange children, these. It wasn't until total darkness had fallen and there were multiple areas of "children laughing" that we realized we were listening to the cry of the jackals. It left a lasting impression and convinced me I could find the wildness I crave here.
ONE REASON that jackals howl is to establish territories; in essence they are saying, "We live here, no trespassing!" By broadcasting over long distances they avoid actual confrontations. Howling is prominent when a pair needs to establish a good area in which to breed - here, during winter. After birth, while the pups are vulnerable, howling decreases so as not to give away the position of the den to possible predators. The problem is that because the pair stops advertising its territory other jackals wander in and there is an increase in confrontations and fights. There is a flip side to everything.
The primary social unit of the golden jackal is the pair bond between the mated male and female. They both take care of the young, but the male does even more: During the first week or two after birth, the male feeds the female while she feeds the young. When the pups are older, both the father and mother hunt and feed their pups by regurgitating partially digested food. Then, in a pattern that is amazingly broad among widely different species of organisms, the young, even after they are sexually mature, stay with their parents and help to raise the next litter. So most of the time golden jackals live in small family groups, sometimes just a pair, but often made up of the mated pair and their young adult offspring who are helping with the next litter.
Golden jackals are considered monogamous for life based on observations showing that the same male and female individuals stay together over many seasons. However this "monogamy" might be behavioral but not sexual. In a fascinating study on a related canid species, the Ethiopian wolf, Claudio Sillero-Zubiri and others found that while the male and female wolves would stay together and continue to care for the young (with their probably closely related pack members), 70 percent of the copulations were not between the bonded male and female pairs but with wolves from different packs. The authors thought that this system prevented inbreeding of this particularly isolated species.
However, such decidedly nonmonogamous behavior might be present in all the Canis species, including golden jackals. It was assumed in other studies that a bonded pair was taking care of its own pups, but paternity was never tested. After Sillero-Zubiri's observations it is clear that such tests are necessary to find out what is really going on. It could be that the male is taking care of another jackal's offspring.
JACKALS ARE adaptable. Prof. David Macdonald of Oxford University studied two groups of jackals living near the Dead Sea. He found one group had about 20 individuals, very different from the usual family group. He speculated that they lived in this different social system to take advantage of the feeding station that the national park provided. Jackals are also flexible in their activity patterns. When they live near urban areas, they are strictly nocturnal and their survival depends on having good cover where they hide during the day. However, in wilderness areas far from human habitation, they are active during the day. Flexible behavior is a characteristic of all wild mammals that manage to thrive near humans.
Israel's golden jackals were long considered vermin. In 1964 they were systematically poisoned until almost completely exterminated. Are they actually harmful? There is not a single report of jackals ever injuring people. However, they can be a problem for farmers. Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University and collaborators did a study on jackal predation against cattle grazing on the Golan Heights. With the help of timely information from the ranchers, they were able to do a postmortem every time a calf was found dead. Jackals did occasionally prey on newborn calves, resulting in a predation rate of about 1.5% of total births during the year of the study.
However, this is not the whole story. Analysis of jackal feces showed that the Golan jackal's main diet is not calves, but rodents. The rodents on the Golan Heights eat the same grains as the cattle do, therefore, when jackal populations are too low the rodents eat all the grain and the ranchers have to supplement the natural food of the cattle. The challenge is maintaining a population of jackals large enough to eat the rodents, but not so large that they hunt the calves. All things in moderation.
If you are out in the evening, listen for the cry of the jackals broadcasting far and wide, "This is my territory."
The author has a PhD in behavioral ecology from Boston University.