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The black-backed jackal

25 August 2014


The Order Carnivora to which all the jackals belong was first described by Bowditch in 1821 when it was thought that all its members were flesh-eaters. The name is derived from the Latin words caro (flesh) and voro (to eat). It was only learned later that many of these carnivores, such as the black-backed jackal, were actually omnivores that also ate vegetation. It is impossible to find characteristics that clearly separate the cat-like and dog-like carnivores, but the most useful one is the skull morphology. However, the doglike Suborder Caniformia which includes the jackals has no septum to divide the ear bulla into two chambers as in the catlike Suborder Feliformia. Other differences in the ear characteristics are also found, but the members of the Suborder Feliformia are more homogeneous in morphology than the members of the Suborder Caniformia.

The name jackal is derived from the Persian word sagal, probably referring to the golden jackal Canis aureus. Jackals are the most abundant members of the family Canidae in the fossil record, dating from the earliest Pleistocene some 1.9 million years ago in southern Africa. The Canidae split from the other carnivores millions of years ago. There are, however, no clues to or phylogenetic links between Miocene (26 to 7 million years ago) and recent canid fossils. The family Canidae was named by Fisher in 1817. The genus Canis was named by Linnaeus in 1758 based on the domestic dog Canis lupus familiaris. In southern Africa there are two types of jackal, the side-striped jackal Canis adustus adustus and the smaller black-backed jackal Canis mesomelas mesomelas. Canis mesomelas was first described scientifically as a species by Schreber in 1775 based on a specimen from the foothills of the Cape Fold Mountains.

With the laughing call of the spotted hyaena and the haunting call of the fish-eagle, the yapping howl of the black-backed jackal is part of the mystique of the African night without which a campfire will never be complete. The colloquial name saddle-backed jackal refers to the dark, silver-streaked saddle on the back which contrasts sharply with the red flanks and limbs which become a rich red in males in winter in arid areas and provides excellent camouflage against the bare, red soil. The under parts are white or have a rusty tint, while the lower limbs are paler than the upper ones. The tip of the brushy tail is black; the long ears are pointed and reddish behind, their length exceeding 100 mm in males. The shoulder height of an adult is around 38 cm but the mean weight of a male is 7.9 kg as opposed to 6.6 kg for a female, and South African specimens are larger than those further north. There are 5 toes on the front foot, and 4 on the hind foot and the toes have short claws. There are at least 16 Afrikaans colloquial names. The black-backed jackal occurs as two subspecies in southern and East Africa that are separated by a wetter belt of at least 900 km wide. It is likely that earlier the black-backed jackal represented a monotypic (single) species of jackal.

The habitat is mainly open woodlands and grasslands, including semi-arid regions. The black-backed jackal has large carnassial teeth and is one of few mammals to form long-lasting pair bonds. The pairs are territorial but a pair may be accompanied by young of the previous year as litter helpers. Both sexes mark the territory boundaries, and as most canids do they scratch the ground after urination with all the feet to spread the scent. The range size varies from region to region from 1.3 to 575 km2 per pair depending on the availability of food. It is diurnal and nocturnal but becomes mainly nocturnal where it is being persecuted. Dispersing young may move as far as 135 km away from their parents when they become two years old. The black-backed jackal has an acute sense of smell and is independent of water but will drink water it when it is available. The territorial call is often given when following a large predator at a distance.

Mating occurs from July to October, the females showing synchronized breeding, and the young are mainly born from the winter to the early summer when food is abundant. True oestrus lasts seven days. The males are reproductively inactive from September to April and the females from December to March. The mean litter size is around three (range: one to nine). Litters are born in the disused burrows of other animals which the female enlarges. The female moves the pups to new dens regularly, but after 14 weeks of age the pups no longer use a den and in protected areas most mortality occurs then through spotted hyaenas and lions. The female cannot raise the pups on her own and the male brings food to her when she is lactating. When a mated male dies, whole litters will die and the female will disperse. Age determination can be based on the eruption sequence and wear of the incisor teeth up to an age of seven years.

The black-backed jackal forages singly or in pairs, but large aggregations of up to 78 jackals can be found at an abundant food source such as an elephant carcass. They prey heavily on springhares and scavenge 35% of their food but are largely omnivorous, varying their diet by region but relying heavily on rodents everywhere, while birds are often eaten along the southern coastal region. Domestic livestock in the sheep-farming parts of the Northern Cape province of South Africa form 14.9% of the diet. Predation on lambs in small livestock areas is seasonal and mainly occurs in the winter and spring.

A black-backed jackal runs down its prey and kills it with a bite to the throat, below an eye or on the side of the neck. The bite marks are some 21 to 30 mm apart, and feeding starts on the groin and soft buttocks after the prey has been dragged to cover. Their habit of following and barking at large predators such as the leopard often causes them to be killed because they cannot outpace a leopard. Black-backed jackals, as are dogs, are a popular prey for leopards in several regions, and in the Kalahari form 22% of all the hunting attempts of a leopard. They are also preyed upon by at least 15 other types of predator in Africa. Black-backed jackals are well-known for contracting and transmitting rabies, mostly in the winter.


Bothma. J. du P. 1998. Carnivore ecology in arid lands. Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Bothma, J. du P. & C. Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik.

Skinner, J. D. & C. T. Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 486 – 491.

Wozencraft, W. C. 2005. Order Carnivora. In: D E Wilson & D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world – a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 532 – 628.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma


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