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Ancient DNA from extinct dire wolves reveals their unique evolutionary history

Extinct dire wolves split off from other wolves nearly six million years ago and were only a distant relative of today’s wolves, according to new research.

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An illustration of the extinct large Dire Wolf hunting alone in the woods. Credit: Aunt_Spray/iStock,com
An illustration of the extinct large Dire Wolf hunting alone in the woods. Credit: Aunt_Spray/iStock,com

Dire wolves, made famous in the TV show Game of Thrones, were common across North America until around 13,000 years ago, after which they went extinct.

The study, published today in Nature, shows that dire wolves were so different from other canine species like coyotes and grey wolves that they were not able to breed with each other. Previous analyses, based on morphology alone, had led scientists to believe that dire wolves were closely related to grey wolves.

The international team, including scientists from Queen Mary University of London and Durham University, sequenced the ancient DNA of five dire wolf sub-fossils from Wyoming, Idaho, Ohio, and Tennessee, dating back to over 50,000 years ago. Their analyses showed that dire wolves and grey wolves were in fact very distant cousins.

This is the first time ancient DNA has been taken from dire wolves revealing a complex history of these ice age predators.

First ancient DNA analysis

The collaboration of 49 researchers across nine countries including the UK, Germany, Australia and the US, analysed the genomes of dire wolves alongside those of many different wolf-like canid species. Their findings suggest that unlike many canid species who apparently migrated repeatedly between North America and Eurasia over time, dire wolves evolved solely in North America for millions of years.

Although dire wolves overlapped with coyotes and grey wolves in North America for at least 10,000 years before their extinction, they found no evidence that they interbred with these species. The researchers suggest that their deep evolutionary differences meant that they were likely ill equipped to adapt to changing conditions at the end of the ice age.

Lead author, Dr Angela Perri from Durham University’s Archaeology Department, said: "Dire wolves have always been an iconic representation of the last ice age in the Americas and now a pop culture icon thanks to Game of Thrones, but what we know about their evolutionary history has been limited to what we can see from the size and shape of their bones and teeth.

“With this first ancient DNA analysis of dire wolves we have revealed that the history of dire wolves we thought we knew - particularly a close relationship to grey wolves - is actually much more complicated than we previously thought. Instead of being closely related to other North American canids, like grey wolves and coyotes, we found that dire wolves represent a branch that split off from others millions of years ago, representing the last of a now extinct lineage."

Genetically distinct

The dire wolf is one of the most famous prehistoric carnivores from Pleistocene America which became extinct around 13,000 years ago. Known scientifically as Canis dirus, meaning ’fearsome dog’, they preyed on large mammals like bison.

The team suggests the dire wolves’ stark evolutionary divergence from grey wolves places them in an entirely different genus - Aenocyon dirus (‘terrible wolf’)- as first proposed by palaeontologist John Campbell Merriam over 100 years ago.

Senior author, Dr Laurent Frantz, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Genetics/Informatics at Queen Mary University of London and Professor of Palaeogenomics of Domestic Animals at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, added: “When we first started this study we thought that dire wolves were just beefed up grey wolves, so we were surprised to learn how extremely genetically different they were, so much so that they likely could not have interbred. Hybridisation across Canis species is thought to be very common, this must mean that dire wolves were isolated in North America for a very long time to become so genetically distinct.”

More information

  • Research publication: 'Dire wolves were the last of an ancient New World canid lineage' Angela R. Perri, et al. Nature DOI:10.1038/s41586-020-03082-x