The giant bone-crushing species of gloomy wolves that roamed North America until about 12,000 years ago was once thought to be closely related to live wolves.
This portrayal was reinforced by the HBO television series “Game of Thrones,” which offered what was considered a reasonably accurate portrayal of the now extinct animals. They were famously the symbol of House Stark, known for its habitation of the cold northern lands of George RR Martin’s mythical world Westeros.
In real life, however, prehistoric wolves were not closely related to modern wolves, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature ̵
“I certainly do not think the average gloomy wolf would have been thrilled to live in frozen Winterfell,” said Angela Perri, a zooarchologist at Durham University in the UK and lead author of the study.Winterfell is the ancestral castle of House Stark.
Researchers had assumed gloomy wolves mixed with gray wolves and other related species that most live dog (dog-like) species can – including coyotes, jackals and domestic animals. But the new study reveals gloomy wolves that belonged to an ancient genus that was so different from other dogs that they did not interfere.
And if they do not cross each other, scientists claim that expensive wolves may not have been able to acquire traits to help them survive in rapidly changing environments at the end of the last ice age – around the time they became extinct. .
“Dire wolves apparently did not have the ability to adapt,” Perri said.
Other reasons for their disappearance could be the extinction of many of their prey species in the warming environment, such as horses, camels and mammoths – possibly some of them from the early Americans who arrived around the same time. Or it could be that gloomy wolves fell victim to diseases caused by other wolf and coyote wolves that had evolved in Eurasia, she said.
Dirty wolf fossils have been found in several places throughout North and South America, mainly in the lowlands and in warm climates. Perri said she thinks real gloomy wolves may have had short coats to suit hot weather, rather than the thick shabby fur portrayed in the fantasy TV series.
“I suppose Nymeria, Ghost and Lady [three of the dire wolves in “Game of Thrones”] would look more like one of the more warmly adapted dogs, such as dholes, ”she said, referring to a species also known as the Asian wild dog, which has a short coat.
Perri and her colleagues spent years collecting potential specimens of ancient DNA from grim wolf fossils found at about 150 archeological sites.
Co-author Laurent Frantz, professor of paleogenetics at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, said the study used ancient DNA recovered from the teeth and dense ear bones of five of the fossils.
By comparing the ancient DNA with genetic material from other canids, they found that the spooky wolf’s closest living relative was the African jackal, which diverged about 5.1 million years ago, while the closest living wolves diverged about 5.7 million. years ago.
“It’s much longer than we thought,” Frantz said. “We thought more for tens of thousands of years.”
It is likely that ancestors of gloomy wolves occupied America before the last ice age, and that gloomy wolves evolved alone over millions of years, while the gray wolf (canis lupus) evolved in Eurasia and migrated to America relatively recently, perhaps within the last 50,000 years, he said.
“This is a fascinating result,” said Robert Dundas, a vertebrate paleontologist and professor at California State University Fresno who studied ice age mammals and was not involved in the study.
The conclusion that gloomy wolves did not mix with other species, unlike almost all living dogs, could have consequences for the causes of their extinction, he said.
“The animals that were able to cross each other … maybe they had some sort of selective advantage,” he said.
Mairin Balisi, a paleontologist at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum who has worked on grim wolf fossils from La Brea tar holes, said the new research requires new thinking.
“Much of the illegal behavior we’ve deduced had the implicit assumption that the gray wolf is their closest living relative,” she said. “But this shows that is not the case.”
Yet it is likely that gloomy wolves were a herd animal like gray wolves and not solitary predators like foxes. One of the reasons is that some of the grim wolf fossils from La Brea show that they are healed from debilitating injuries like broken bones, suggesting that their pack provided them with food when they could not hunt, she said.
The tar dens at La Brea are a hotspot for gloomy wolves, where more than 4,000 of their fossils have been found since excavations began there in the early 20th century.
“It would be lucky to have a sample size of 10 for a particular species, but we have been lucky,” Balisi said. “It was unfortunate for the animal, but fortunate for paleontologists.”