Fans of the series Game of Thrones will be more than familiar with the dire wolf. As a CGI beast, they ran alongside the Stark children through the early episodes, enchanting viewers with ferocity and lupine charm.
It’s therefore no surprise that a South Oregon dog breeder is attempting to create a real dire wolf for modern times. The Washington Post describes how mixing dog breeds is creating the fantasy lookalike for the pet market, with German shepherds and Alaskan malamutes giving this new breed the wolf hybrid look. But what is a dire wolf? You may be surprised to learn that, far from legendary, a real dire wolf did exist.
What Is a Dire Wolf?
Fantasy TV dire wolves appear as massive dog-like creatures, swift and ferocious in battle and covered in shaggy gray-white fur. But do these characteristics translate to their real-life counterparts?
Yes and no. Dire wolves did exist, and they looked very much like large dogs. But instead of gray and shaggy, researchers now think that the ancient dire wolf looked more like a larger reddish coyote. Fossil evidence from the Pleistocene era suggests that Canis dirus was similar in shape to a modern gray wolf but bigger. National Geographic describes them as being around 150 pounds (ca. 68 kg) and six feet long from nose to tail tip.
The dire wolf’s skull shape was similar to that of wolves and other canine species of today, suggesting that these animals were capable of hunting down and dispatching small herbivores like deer and horses. They may also have been able to take down bison and small mammoths.
Where Did the Real Dire Wolf Roam?
The real dire wolf was a predator in North America between 250 and 13 thousand years ago, according to Science.org. The species may have crossed over the land bridge into Asia before sea levels rose to form the Bering Strait. The New York Times reports that fossil evidence in Northeast China points to dire wolves surviving in that area.
According to the fossils from North America, dire wolves were the largest canids on the continent. The National Park Service has noted that finds from the famous La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles indicate that the animals lived in large social groups or packs and engaged in competition over prey.
Genomics Provide Answers
So, evidence has suggested that dire wolves were a lot like today’s gray wolves, and this is how they’ve been portrayed in dioramas, illustrations and of course on television. But now there is evidence to suggest that maybe the real dire wolf was a redhead.
The genomic evidence from the La Brea tar pits is scarce, as the hot bubbly conditions rapidly degrade DNA. However, one fossil did yield a clump of collagen, which scientists were able to analyze and compare with modern dog lineages. They found that the dire wolf protein strands were remarkably different from what was expected.
To make greater sense of this, the team needed more genomic material with which to work. Since DNA from existing tar pit fossils was in short supply, the researchers put out a wider search for materials, calling on museums and collections for bits of ancient wolf bone to see if any held traces of DNA. According to Scientific American, the hunt was successful: The lead researcher tracked down and recently reported the sequencing results of five dire wolf fossils that are between 50,000 and 13,000 years old.
The genomic analysis showed that dire wolves are less related to gray wolves than previously thought; their lineage split away around 5.7 million years ago, and they are more closely related to African jackals. Instead of Canis dirus, dire wolves are probably more correctly termed Aenocynon dirus and are depicted as short-furred, reddish animals.
The genomic sequencing also held another surprising result: Dire wolf DNA showed that they did not interbreed with other dog species, as is common for other canids. This, along with reliance on a very specific and inflexible diet, may be the reason for their extinction. Competition, climate change causing shortage of prey, or maybe diseases from incoming wolves or other canids could also be responsible for North America’s lack of dire wolves today.
That doesn’t stop people hoping though. As Inverse reports, a potential dire wolf found in Montana in May 2018 turned out to be a regular gray wolf with bigger ears than normal.
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