Black-backed jackal

The Old Kingdom of Egypt’s most important god of the dead was Anubis, a jackal-headed creature that served as the arbitrator of souls and keeper of all the dead. But why give him the head of a jackal? Were jackals associated with the afterlife?

It is thought that Egyptians did associate jackals with the afterlife, as jackals are opportunistic creatures, much like dogs, that seek food from human leftovers or from carrion of other predators. One place where they would often find it was at the food-rich, elaborate cemeteries of the dead.  Thus the jackal became the “head” of Anubis.

But what else makes these canine creatures unique? They are very similar to dogs, with their mitochondrial DNA (DNA that is inherited through the mother) diverging ~6 million years ago. Fossil evidence suggests the golden jackal originated in Europe or Asia (where it presently lives in dry grassland) and that side-striped and black-backed jackals evolved in Africa (where they live in wetter woodlands and drier grasslands/acacia forests, respectively).

Though they are often scavengers, they are also very skillful hunters, especially of rodents. They can hunt down birds and mammals up to the size of a newborn gazelle, but the trick to their success as predators is teamwork! Usually one will chase the prey, while the other either harasses any other animals that would protect it or helps tire the prey out. It has been shown that when jackals cooperate to hunt down hares or antelope young, they are two to three times more successful. But who makes up this team usually?

Black-backed jackal pups (

Mates! Yes, jackals are monogamous! They often will guard a territory against other jackal couples, raise young during the breeding season (where ~3-4 pups will be born). Then those pups will stay on the territory for the next two years. Subadults (jackals over 9-10 months old) remain if food is plentiful. They then help raise the next litter of pups before they go off into the wild to raise their own families.

Jackals are extremely efficient at providing food for their young. Often if they are not quick, their food will be eaten by the kleptomaniacs of the wild (i.e. hyenas or wild dogs), so instead they hunt food for their young by eating it first and then regurgitating it once they reach their dens.

But don’t pet them! (Not that you should pet any wild animals, mind you!) Jackals in particular often carry rabies. In fact 25% of all recorded rabies cases in central southern Africa are due to jackals. The reason for the high number is the close contact they have with one another. They are thus able to more easily transmit it. Transmission is often through saliva which occurs through licking and their bite wounds to one another.

So key points: they are Egyptian icons, they know what teamwork means, they are lovingly monogomous, they know how to take care of their babies, and they are not “puppies” to be pat.

Stay Wild,

Gabby Wild