If you’re familiar with dire wolves, you’re probably familiar with them from “Game of Thrones.” It would be easy to think that the dire wolf was something that George R. R. Martin came up with in his imagination, but they were real creatures that scientists have known existed since the mid-19th century. The dire wolf went extinct long ago.
It was believed until recently that the dire wolf was a more heavily muscled relative of the gray wolf still in existence today. This assumption was made in part because the skeletons of the ancient dire wolf and modern gray wolf look very similar. However, a new study published recently suggests that the species share less in common than many believed.
Archaeologist Angela Perri from Durham University in the UK traveled across North America looking for dire wolf fossils in museum collections and attempted to extract DNA. The team was able to sequence genomes from dire wolf fossils spread across the United States.
The age of the fossils the DNA was removed from range from about 50,000 years old to about 13,000 years old. The genomic sequence was compared to modern gray wolves and several other canids. Researchers discovered that dire wolves and modern gray wolves diverged genetically from a common ancestor about 5.7 million years ago.
The similarities in the two animals is said to be an example of convergent evolution. Essentially, the team believes the gray wolf and dire wolf developed similar traits because their lifestyles were similar, not because DNA was particularly similar. It’s possible the dire wolf spent millions of years evolving in the Americas greatly separated from gray wolves developing in Eurasia. A major question scientists now want to answer is what caused the extinction of dire wolves. They believe the extinction could have occurred from humans migrating into the area, other wolves and dogs fighting for territory, or diseases.