New insight into the remarkable adaptations of painted wolves

Painted wolves have evolved to stand out. Why? It’s in their genes.

Through years of evolution painted wolves have developed special adaptations that have helped them become one of the most outstanding predators on the African continent.

Among the living species of Canidae, the African wild dog is considered to be the most specialized with regard to adaptations for cursoriality, diet, and coat coloration,” reads a recent scientific report published in Nature.

Comparative genomics provides new insights into the remarkable adaptations of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) Read the full scientific report HERE.

Let us ‘unpack’ this for you…

Painted wolves, or Lycaon pictus, split from wolves, domestic dogs, jackals, coyotes, and even Ethiopian wolves about 3.9 million years ago. The latter are all part of the genus Canis, while painted wolves are the only surviving members of the Lycaon genus. Unlike most other large canids, African wild dogs were genetically isolated with no cross-breeding taking place between lineages.

About 1.7 million years ago, during the Pleistocene period, evolutionary changes occurred in the painted wolf’s paws around the time large-bodied ungulates (prey species) started to diversify. This was followed by the changes in the dog’s dentition and coat.

Painted wolf paws


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Photo: Nicholas Dyer Photography



Painted wolves ditched the dewclaw and have evolved from their five-digit ancestor to have only four digits on their forepaws. It has been suggested that the missing digit on their pads helped improve their stride and increase speed allowing them to successfully pursue prey for long distances. Today, painted wolves are one of the most successful pack-hunter hunters in the world. This adaptation has allowed them to catch increasingly faster prey.

The elongation of limbs and the reduction or loss of digits is a common trait among animals built to run. The study states “Among canids, the African wild dog displays the most specialized morphological changes associated with cursoriality, including a unique reduction of the number of digits on the forepaws.”


Painted wolf teeth

Relative to body size, painted wolves have the largest premolars of any living carnivore, second to the spotted hyena. Painted wolves are considered to be hypercarnivores, meaning 70% of their diet is meat.

The African wild dog’s premolars have evolved to be more blade-like or carnassial. Carnassial meaning adapted for shearing flesh, well-suited to taking down prey.  A painted wolf’s lower first molar are also carnassial.   An added benefit of having razor sharp teeth is it decreases consumption time at the kill. Painted wolves are slightly built – the faster they can eat their meal and get out of there, the less likely they will encounter other bigger predators like lion, leopard and hyena.

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Photo: Nicholas Dyer Photography

A coat of many colours

Lastly, this study addresses the painted wolf’s exquisite coat colouration. Painted wolves have one of the most varied coat patterns in the world. Scientists are still baffled as to why.

Each dog has a unique colour pattern and coat configuration. Researchers are currently unsure about the purpose of individualised colouring; possible reasons include camouflage, communication and/or thermoregulation. Another theory is that it may not be the result of natural selection. Whatever the reason, it certainly makes them beautiful to photograph.

Learn more fascinating facts about painted wolves on our website!