Australian DNA detectives reveal secrets of Game of Thrones dire wolves13th January 2021
Massive dire wolves prowl through the icy north of Westeros, in George R.R. Martin’s epic Game of Thrones. The near mythical creatures are the Stark family sigil in the epic saga, with five orphaned pups becoming deeply bonded with Ned Stark’s five children.
It’s the stuff of legends – but hundreds of thousands of years before becoming a pop culture icon, dire wolves were formidable ice age predators. Twice the size of a German shepherd, with teeth specialised for tearing meat, they hunted bison, horses and harnessed enough pack power to bring down a gigantic mastodon. For hundreds of thousands of years they prowled the land mass between Bolivia and Canada as a dominant species until around 13,000 years ago when they became extinct toward the end of an ice age.
Research published on Wednesday in the journal Nature challenges existing knowledge about the dire wolf and offers answers to the puzzling question of why this apex predator died out when other smaller American Pleistocene era wolves and coyotes survived to modern day.
Scientists previously thought dire wolves (canis dirus) were essentially a “beefed-up version” of the common grey wolf species (canis lupus); closely related and likely able to interbreed. But the world’s first DNA investigation of partly fossilised dire wolf remains revealed they are “more like distant cousins, like humans and chimpanzees,” said Kieren Mitchell, co-lead author from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.