Today, many people recognize dire wolves as the wolf-like animals that star in the popular fantasy television series Game of Thrones. But dire wolves were actually real. These majestic animals once roamed the New World.
Dire wolves, also known as Canis dirus, lived during the Pleistocene becoming extinct roughly 10,000 years ago. These animals are closely related to gray wolves and lived alongside them, but are not descended from them, according to Dr. Adam Boyko, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at Embark. The now-extinct animals could be found in both North and South America, typically walking through forests or grasslands at high elevation.
Appearance of dire wolves
The dire wolves that appeared on Game of Thrones—including Summer and Grey Wind, who tested with Embark!—are presumably a bit larger than real-world dire wolves were. CGI wasn’t involved in the real deal. Dire wolves were approximately 5 feet long and had the potential to weigh up to 150 pounds, Dr. Boyko said. He noted that it’s difficult to estimate their weight as fossils remain to be the only existing evidence of dire wolves.
Were they the largest wolf to roam the planet? Definitely, in America, Dr. Boyko says. “They were as big or bigger than the Yukon wolf you see now,” he explained.
Dire wolves were skilled predators
Dire wolves were among the top predators during their time, along with saber tooth cats.
“They were a fairly common top hypercarnivorous predator consuming a wide variety of megafauna that roamed the Pleistocene landscape,” Forbes reports.
Dire wolves were reportedly very aggressive. To prove that hypothesis, paleontologists looked at breakage patterns in their teeth to see how much bone they chewed on while eating. The findings showed that dire wolf teeth contained more damage than any other animals who ate bone, illustrating their aggressive nature.
Why did dire wolves become extinct?
In 1854, the first dire wolf fossil was found by Joseph Leidy in Indiana. Thousands of dire wolf fossils were later discovered at the La Brea Tar Pits in California, says Dr. Boyko. Using skulls and teeth, paleontologists were able to study these animals. They learned about how dire wolves fed and looked for a connection between their diet and extinction, which only happened about 10,000 years ago.
“Evidence suggests that the extinction of the dire wolf happened fairly quickly. Maybe even in as few as 100 to 1000 years at the end of the Pleistocene Era,” the Dire Wolf Project reported. “Climatic change must have played a significant role in the destruction of the dire wolf, but some scientists speculate that, along with this climate change, a large comet may have contributed to the dire wolf’s demise.”
There are holes in the comet theory, including that some species became extinct while others did not. Another theory is that man introduced disease; however, that doesn’t explain how the gray wolf grew in size and survived and the dire wolf didn’t.
Some other possibilities are that humans competed with dire wolves for larger herbivores, making it harder for them to obtain food. Many believe that the mix of warmer climates and a decrease in food supply caused the extinction of dire wolves along with the woolly mammoth and mastodon. When larger animals became harder to find, the dire wolf was too big and bulky to go after smaller, faster prey. Dr. Boyko concurs and says it seems likely that humans played a central role in the extinction of dire wolves.
He went on to say that it’s hard to investigate or study an animal when you don’t have any living specimens or contemporary reports.
“To me, it’s interesting that they are one of the most recently extinct species, and we know so little about them,” Dr. Boyko said. “It highlights how dynamic the world is and how much has changed in really just a blink of evolutionary time.”
Learn more about the dogs who played dire wolves on Game of Thrones and what their Embark results say about them.