Neolithic Farmers Helped African Wolves Have a Population Boom 5,000 Years Ago

Humans were not the only species that experienced a population boom after the development of farming—so did the recently described African wolf (Canis aureus lupaster).

According to a study published in Biology Letters, the predators benefited from the influx of goats, sheep and other livestock introduced during the expansion in North Africa.

"Today, we are very much elucidated about the negative impacts of humans on past biodiversity through persecution, habitat fragmentation [and] forest clearance, among others," co-author Raquel Godinho, a principal researcher at the University of Porto in Portugal, told Newsweek.

"While that is well understood, the potential benefits of the Neolithic expansion on wild species have been little explored."

The African wolf is described as a generalist and opportunistic carnivore that can be found in a wide range of habitats across the north and east of Africa thanks to its flexible approach to diet.

For a long time, the species was mistaken for the golden jackal (Canis aureus) and as such, knowledge of its biology and ecology is relatively scant. However, new research analyzing its DNA is attempting to explain how its population fluctuated over time.

Scientists collected samples of DNA from individual wolves in Tunisia and Algeria, using genetic markers and patterns within the DNA to determine the species' demographic history.

In particular, they analyzed mitochondrial DNA (inherited through the mother) and a series of microsatellite markers (inherited by both parents).

"The DNA molecule accumulates differences that occur in populations over time, and the amount of accumulated differences is related to several factors intrinsic to the species, for instance the generation length, but also to the size of the population," said Godinho.

"This means that past demographic changes have left a signature in the DNA of every species, and we can use this property to infer about population demography."

The researchers identified two periods of possible population expansion. The first occurred roughly 50,00 years ago during the Late Pleistocene, when several African mammals flourished as a result of favorable climate changes.

The second coincided with the advent of farming approximately 5,000 years ago. The researchers argue the development of Neolithic technology, the start of farming and, in particular, the rise in domesticated animals created an opportunity for the opportunistic African wolf.

"The availability of human-related resources, especially livestock, that emerged during the Neolithic revolution may have boosted population sizes of opportunistic wild species, supporting a favorable coexistence of humans and wild species in this period," said Godinho.

The advent of farming and in particular, the proliferation of livestock like cattle (pictured) during the Neolithic Revolution helped wild populations of African wolves flourish. Gilles_Paire/iStock

"The findings are surprising compared with what we normally see for wild species, which tend to be threatened by agricultural activities," Frank Hailer, an evolutionary biologist at Cardiff University in the U.K. who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek. "It is interesting to note that in the case of the African wolf, availability of livestock may have led to population increases in a wild predator.

"However, we see the opposite in many predators, at least today, that competition with humans is leading to severe declines of many species. Let's hope the African wolf is here to stay!"

There are, however, certain limitations with the research, including some conflicting results between the results from the mitochondrial DNA and results from the markers and patterns.

"Going forward, increased sampling of individuals and perhaps more large-scale genomic methods could be used to confirm these results and to perhaps pick up on additional fine-scaled events," said Heiler.