New DNA Suggest that Largest Wolf “Dire Wolf” May Not Be The Ancestor We Once Imagined It was.
One of North America’s largest wolf and most famous ancient predators—and a favorite of Game of Thrones fans—emerged as mysteriously as it disappeared. Dire wolves, who died at the end of the last ice age with mammoths and saber-toothed cats, and the largest wolf, have long been considered to be close relatives to gray wolves. Now, instead of traveling a lonely evolutionary path, the first study of dire wolf DNA finds that they are so distinct from other wolves, coyotes, and dogs that they don’t belong to the genus that contains these species. Instead, they need an entirely new scientific classification, researchers claim.
In the new report, researchers scoured North America attempting to collect genetic samples at colleges and museums from hundreds of dire wolf remains. In five individuals, varying in age from about 13,000 to more than 50,000 years old, they recovered about one-quarter of the nuclear genome and the complete mitochondrial DNA.
Their genetic material revealed a new evolutionary family tree, and a surprise: Dire wolves occupy their own lineage, separate from those that gave rise to African jackals, gray wolves, coyotes, and dogs by nearly 6 million years, the team reported recently in Nature. “Though they look like wolves, dire wolves actually have nothing to do with wolves,” says Angela Perri, a Durham University zoo-archaeologist and one of the lead authors of the report.
Dire wolves have long captured people’s imaginations. The creatures were larger than the heaviest of today’s gray wolves, weighing around 150 pounds which is why they were considered the largest wolf among other attributes. They roamed through large swaths of the Americas and exploited megafauna now extinct, such as horses from the Ice Age and ground sloths.
Furthermore, genetic analysis revealed that the predators probably evolved in the Americas, where for hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of years, they were the only wolflike species. When gray wolves and coyotes arrived from Eurasia, probably about 20,000 years ago, the world’s largest wolf, thedire wolves were apparently unable to breed with them, as no traces of genetic mixing were found by the researchers. That is unusual, Perri says, because offspring can be produced even by species as diverse as dogs and coyotes. In addition, she says, this suggests that dire wolves were a very different animal from those other creatures.