Nyctereutes terblanchei: The raccoon dog that never was
Fossils of the raccoon dog (genus Nyctereutes) are particularly rare in the African Plio-Pleistocene record, whilst the sole living representative, Nyctereutes procyonoides, is found in eastern Asia and parts of Europe. In southern Africa, only one fossil species of raccoon dog has been identified – Nyctereutes terblanchei. N. terblanchei is recognised from a handful of Plio-Pleistocene sites in South Africa: Kromdraai, Kromdraai–Coopers and Sterkfontein in Gauteng, as well as Elandsfontein in the Western Cape Province. The validity of this species identification was questioned on the basis of the rarity of southern African fossils assigned to Nyctereutes, that is, fewer than 10 specimens have been identified as Nyctereutes. This study examined this fossil sample of the raccoon dog from the Gauteng sites and compared dental and cranial metrics of the fossil with samples of modern canids and published data. Morphological traits used to distinguish Nyctereutes, such as the pronounced subangular lobe on the mandible and the relatively large size of the lower molars, were observed to be variable in all samples. Analysis showed that the size of the dentition of the southern African fossil samples was larger than that of living raccoon dogs, but fell well within the range of that of African jackals. These results suggest that fossil Nyctereutes cannot be distinguished from other canid species based on metric data alone, and may only be diagnosable using combinations of non-metric traits of the dentition and skull. However, based on the degree of morphological variability of the traits used to diagnose Nyctereutes, as well as the rarity of this genus in the African fossil record, these fossils are more likely to belong to a species of jackal or fox.