The extinct giant wolves they separated from other wolves almost six million years ago and they were just a distant relative of today’s wolves, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal ‘Nature‘.
These wolves, who became famous in the series’Game of Thrones‘, were common throughout North America until about 13,000 years ago, after which They became extinct.
The study shows that wolves they were so different from other canine species like coyotes and gray wolves that they could not reproduce with each other. Previous analyzes, based solely on morphology, had led scientists to believe that giant wolves were closely related to gray wolves.
The investigation was led by the Durham University, in the United Kingdom, together with scientists from the University of Oxford, Ludwig Maximilian University, in Germany; the University of Adelaide, in 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 subfossils from Wyoming, Idaho, Ohio, and Tennessee, dating back more than 50,000 years. Their analyzes showed that giant wolves and gray wolves they 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 the giant wolves along with those of many different species of wolf-like canids.
Their analyzes suggest that, unlike many canid species that apparently repeatedly migrated between North America and Eurasia over time, dire 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 interbred with these species. The 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.
The main author, Dr. Angela perri, from the Department of Archeology at Durham University, notes that “giant 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 its evolution in history has been limited to what we can see by the size and shape of its bones and teeth. ”
“With this first analysis of ancient DNA from the giant wolves, we have revealed that the history of the giant wolves we thought we knew, in particular a close relationship with gray wolves, is actually much more complicated than we previously thought,” he adds. .
“Rather than being closely related to other North American canids, such as gray wolves and coyotes, we find that the giant wolves represent a branch that broke away from others millions of years ago, representing the last of a lineage now. extinct, “he continues.
The lead co-author, Dr. Alice mouton, from the University of California, Los Angeles, adds: “We have discovered that this wolf is not closely related to the gray wolf. Furthermore, we show that the giant wolf never interbred with the gray wolf. In contrast, gray wolves, African wolves, dogs, coyotes and jackals can and do interbreed. ”
As he points out, “giant wolves probably separated from gray wolves more than five million years ago, which was a big surprise that this divergence happened so early. 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’, which means “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 an entirely different genus, ‘Aenocyon dirus’ (dire wolf), as first proposed by paleontologist John Campbell Merriam more than 100 years ago.
Lead co-author Dr. Kieren mitchell, from the University of Adelaide, comments that “giant wolves are sometimes portrayed as Mythical creatures who prowl through 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 they could perhaps be related in the same way as modern humans and Neanderthals, our genetic results show that these two wolf species closely resemble each other. more distant cousins, like humans and chimpanzees, “he explains.
“While ancient humans and Neanderthals appear to have interbred, as do gray wolves and modern coyotes, our genetic data did not provide evidence that dire wolves interbred with any living canine species,” he continues. “All our data point to it. to what the dire wolf is the last surviving member of an ancient lineage distinct from all living canines“.
The lead author, Dr. Laurent Frantz, from Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, adds that when they began this study, they thought that giant wolves “were just reinforced gray wolves, so we were surprised to learn how extremely genetically different they were, so much so that they probably couldn’t have interbred. It is believed that hybridization between Canis species is very common, this must mean that dire wolves were isolated in North America for a long time to become so genetically distinct. ”