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Scientists Study DNA Of Dire Wolves, Find They're Not Really Wolves

You might be the most familiar with dire wolves from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The story depicts them as mythical beasts the size of a small horse. That mythical beast is inspired by a real creature that lived during the ice age. Also commonly called a dire wolf, Canis dirus lived up until about 10,000 years ago. But it was a little more modest than the mythical dire wolf from the Game of Thrones series. They were only twice the size of a German shepherd, and as it turns out, aren’t even wolves.

Real dire wolves are still legendary.

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Dire wolves lived during the Ice Age when megafauna were more common. They hunted bison and a pack of dire wolves could even tackle a massive mastodon. For the longest time, scientists assumed that the dire wolf was just a mega version of a grey wolf, perhaps so closely related that they could interbreed. But recent DNA research has challenged this assumption.

Dire wolves are a distant relative of modern wolves.

Dire wolves look so much like modern-day wolves that it was assumed that they were closely related. But, after sequencing their DNA, scientists revealed a different story.

It turns out there are many differences between modern wolves and dire wolves. Modern wolves commonly migrated between North America and Europe, whereas dire wolves lived in only North America for millions of years. This did mean that the wolves' ranges did overlap, but there is no evidence that they ever interbred. In fact, they likely separated from wolves five million years ago.

Dire wolves may not be mythical, but they are fascinating.

Kieren Mitchell, one of the researchers, commented, “Dire wolves are sometimes portrayed as mythical creatures - giant wolves prowling bleak frozen landscapes - but reality turns out to be even more interesting.

"Despite anatomical similarities between grey wolves and dire wolves - suggesting that they could perhaps be related in the same way as modern humans and Neanderthals - our genetic results show these two species of wolf are much more like distant cousins, like humans and chimpanzees.”

Dire wolves went extinct 10,000 years ago.

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It is likely that dire wolves went extinct because they could not adapt quickly enough to the changing climate. Game of Thrones depicts them as enormous wolves that live in the coldest places, but the real wolves were much different than this depiction. Yes, they were large but not as large as a small horse. And they actually lived in warm places, not cold. But either way, they were a fascinating chapter of Earth’s history. Hopefully, their current popularity will inspire more people to learn about our past.

h/t: EurekAlert!