Thanks to the hit television series Game of Thrones, the dire wolf has gained a near-mythical status. But it was a real animal that roamed the Americas for at least 250,000 years, until it became extinct towards the end of the last ice age around 13,000 years ago. While in popular culture the dire wolf is portrayed as a giant predator hunting in snow-covered, northern landscapes, most scientists instead agree that the dire wolf was a very close cousin of the grey wolf – the living species from which the dog was domesticated.
Our research published in the journal Nature shows that both of these characterisations are mistaken. For the first time, we were able to sequence ancient DNA from remains of the now-extinct dire wolf, providing surprising new insights into its origins and biology.
In addition to the grey wolf there are eight related wolf-like species alive today, including the coyote, African wild dog, and three species of jackal. We originally expected our genetic data to confirm what was already known based on looking at the size and shape of their bones: the dire wolf was just a large grey wolf or a very close relative. MORE