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DNA reveals what the wolves that inspired the Game of Thrones were like

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

These wolves, who became famous in the ‘Game of Thrones’ series, were common throughout North America until about 13,000 years ago, after which they became extinct.

The study shows that wolves were as different from other canine species as coyotes and gray wolves that could not reproduce with each other. Previous analyses, based solely on morphology, had led scientists to believe that giant wolves were closely related to gray wolves.

The research was led by Durham University in the United Kingdom, along with scientists from Oxford University, Ludwig Maximilian University, Germany; University of Adelaide, Australia, and the University of California Los Angeles in the United States.

For the first time, the international team has sequenced the ancient DNA of five giant wolf subfossils from Wyoming, Idaho, Ohio and Tennessee, dating back more than 50,000 years. Their analyses showed that giant wolves and gray wolves were in fact very distant cousins.

This is the first time ancient DNA has been taken from giant wolves that reveals a complex history of these ice age predators. The collaboration of 49 researchers in nine countries analyzed the genomes of giant wolves along with those of many different species of wolf-like canids.

Their analyses suggest that, unlike many species of canids that apparently migrated repeatedly between North America and Eurasia over time, terrible wolves evolved only in North America for millions of years.

Although giant wolves overlapped with coyotes and gray wolves in North America for at least 10,000 years before their extinction, they found no evidence that they crossed paths with these species. Researchers suggest that their profound evolutionary differences meant they were probably ill-equipped to adapt to changing conditions at the end of the Ice Age.

Lead author Angela Perri of Durham University’s Department of Archaeology notes that “giant wolves have always been an iconic representation of the last ice age in the Americas and now an icon of pop culture thanks to ‘Game of Thrones’, but what we know about their evolution history has been limited to what we can see by the size and shape of their bones and teeth.”

“With this first analysis of ancient DNA from giant wolves, we have revealed that the story of the giant wolves we thought we knew, particularly a close relationship with gray wolves, is actually much more complicated than we thought before,” the researcher adds.

“Instead of being closely related to other North American canids, such as gray wolves and coyotes, we find that giant wolves represent a branch that separated from others millions of years ago, representing the last of a now extinct lineage.”

The lead co-author, Dr. Alice Mouton of the University of California, Los Angeles, adds: “We have discovered that this wolf is not closely related to the gray wolf. In addition, we showed that the giant wolf never crossed the gray wolf. By contrast, gray wolves, African wolves, dogs, coyotes and jackals can and do interbreed.”

“Giant wolves probably separated from the grey wolves more than five million years ago, which was a great surprise that this divergence occurred so soon. This finding highlights how special and unique it was.”

The giant wolf is one of the most famous prehistoric carnivores in Pleistocene America, which became extinct about 13,000 years ago. Scientifically known as ‘Canis Dirus’, meaning ‘fearsome dog’, they fed on large mammals such as bison. The team suggests that the marked evolutionary divergence of giant wolves from gray wolves places them in a completely different genus, ‘Aenocyon dirus’ (terrible wolf), as first proposed by paleontologist John Campbell Merriam more than 100 years ago.

The lead co-author, Dr. Kieren Mitchell of the University of Adelaide, comments that “giant wolves are sometimes portrayed as mythical creatures that roam bleak and frozen landscapes, but the reality turns out to be even more interesting.”

“Despite the anatomical similarities between gray wolves and giant wolves, suggesting that perhaps they could be related in the same way as modern humans and Neanderthals, our genetic results show that these two species of wolves look much more like distant cousins, such as humans and chimpanzees.”

“While ancient humans and Neanderthals seem to have crossed paths, as do gray wolves and modern coyotes, our genetic data provided no evidence that terrible wolves crossed paths with any living canine species. All our data suggest that the terrible wolf is the last surviving member of an ancient lineage distinct from all living canines.”

The lead author, Dr. Laurent Frantz, of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, adds that when they started this study, they thought that giant wolves “were simply reinforced gray wolves, so we were surprised to know how extremely different genetically they were, so far that they probably could not have crossed. Hybridization among Canis species is thought to be very common, this should mean that terrible wolves were isolated in North America for a long time to become so genetically distinct.”

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