The tallest canid in the world weighs only half as much as a timber wolf, bears an uncanny resemblance to a fox, and has a healthy appetite for fruit. Its stilt-like legs and satellite-dish ears help it find its meatier prey in the tall grasses of the South American savanna, where it lives a solitary existence for much of the year. Its pee smells like marijuana, and its only vocalization is an unmistakable “bark-roar.”
Given this goofy set of traits, you would think that everyone would know about the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus). However, it chosen habitat – scrubby South American savanna that doesn’t get much screen time up here in the northern hemisphere – keeps the “fox on stilts” relatively obscure. Sharing a name with a much more common canid (the wolf) doesn’t help either. The maned wolf, however, is neither maned nor a wolf. It is actually one of the most evolutionarily distinct canids still alive today.
The maned wolf is a testament to the morphological extremes to which animals will go to adapt to their environment. It is light and leggy, with a russet coat and large, attentive ears. The maned wolf’s solitary existence in the savanna has led to those long legs, used to see over the tall grasses of its habitat. Its delicate frame is owed to its diet, which consists mostly of small rodents and fruit (like the aptly named “wolf’s fruit”). The maned wolf and all other South American canids split from the lineage containing wolves and coyotes about 9-10 MYA. Then, soon after, the maned wolf and a couple other canids split off again.