Golden jackals are spreading out across western Europe for the first time in centuries, with the reclusive mammal spotted in places such as Italy, the Netherlands and Norway.
The dog-sized creatures are commonplace in southern Asia, north Africa and the Middle East but in recent years environmentalists have spotted them in regions hundreds of miles from their normal ranges.
Last week, one was snapped by a photo trap in Tuscany, in the heart of Italy close to the city of Florence.
Earlier this year a farmer stumbled across a jackal in the Netherlands, managing to grab a photo of the little-known animal on his phone before it fled.
The reasons for this sudden migration, thought to be one of the largest mammal movements ever seen in modern times, are highly debated.
Many believe golden jackals might be benefitting from climate change. As Europe warms, there are fewer periods of heavy snow in many countries, which suits the jackals.
Others argue they are flourishing as wolves, their larger canid competitor, are persecuted and hunted out of the ecosystem.
Golden jackals are from the same family as the more famous grey wolf but are smaller, closer in size to a large dog, and with a fur coat with varies from a creamy yellow to dark tawny beige depending on the season.
They are an adaptable scavenger and predator species which live in breeding pairs and will eat almost anything, from insects, fruit, birds, small mammals, rodents and human refuse.
Their traditional range has included a large swathe of southern Asia and the Indian subcontinent, much of the Middle East and Gulf, and parts of the Balkans and south-west Europe.
However, in the past five or so years it has increasingly been spotted in western and northern Europe, including as far as Norway where a camera trap snapped one jackal in 2020.
“It is one of the largest range expansions for a mammal that we have ever witnessed, anywhere in the world,” Nathan Ranc, an ecologist and golden jackal expert from the University of California Santa Cruz, told The Daily Telegraph.
“It’s a continent-wide trend. This week, for instance, we had the first report that golden jackals are reproducing in Germany. Jackals are turning up in new places.”
Mr Ranc believes the spread of the animal into new ground is related to the decline of wolves, which were once endemic across Europe but were mostly hunted to extinction by the early 20th century.
“We think there’s a correlation,” he said. “This is what happens when the population of a dominant carnivore goes into decline. We think the persecution of wolves was a trigger.”
However, others disagree, noting wolf populations bottomed out more than a century ago and since the post-war period have actually been rapidly bouncing back as they acquired environmental protections across Europe.
John Linnell, from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, said he believed a reduction in the use of poison by Eastern European nations since they joined the EU in the 2000s could have made the continent more jackal-friendly, since the scavengers regularly eat dead livestock they stumble across.
Mr Ranc said another factor could be climate change, which was warming Europe and leading to less snow. Jackals are known to avoid heavy snow drifts which they struggle to traverse.
Although the return of wolves since their near extinction in western Europe has been highly controversial with farmers and others, the emergence of the golden jackal has been broadly welcomed.
They never attack humans and while they might kill some small domestic farm animals such as chickens or lambs, they are not likely to cause major concerns, said Prof Luigi Boitani from Rome University, the chairman of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe.