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Dire Wolf Facts: An Ancient Animal in the Family Canidae

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

An early twentieth-century illustration of a dire wolf based on a museum skeleton

An early twentieth-century illustration of a dire wolf based on a museum skeleton

A Fictional and a Real Species

Dire wolves are probably known by many people for their role in the Game of Thrones books and TV series, where they are known as direwolves. The animals really existed in the distant past. They were common and apparently very successful predators in some parts of North America during the late Pleistocene and had a wide distribution.

As its name suggests, the dire wolf was once believed to be a relative of the gray wolf. Recent research suggests that though it was a member of the dog family (the family Canidae) and although it had wolf-like features, it shouldn’t be classified as a wolf. The animal’s DNA has been found and part of its genome sequenced. Externally, it looked quite similar to a large gray wolf. The dire wolf had important genetic differences from this animal, however. Sadly, the species is now extinct, but it has left us some fascinating clues about its life.

Biological Classification of the Animal

The dire wolf is currently classified as Canis dirus. The gray (or grey) wolf is Canis lupus. Until recently, the animals were thought to be close relatives. The scientists who completed the genome research believe that the dire wolf is sufficiently unique to be placed in its own genus.

The researchers think that the dire wolf should be placed in the genus Aenocyon and be assigned the scientific name Aenocyon dirus. This name was proposed by another scientist in 1918, but little attention was paid to the proposal at that time. Perhaps more attention will be paid to the idea now that scientists have discovered significant genetic differences between the dire wolf and the gray wolf.

“Dire” in the name of the wolf means “terrible.” The first discoverers of the animal’s remains were impressed by the larger size of the skeleton (especially with respect to the head and jaw) compared to that of other wolves.

The dire wolf may have borne some resemblance to a dhole, though it was significantly bigger and bulkier.

The dire wolf may have borne some resemblance to a dhole, though it was significantly bigger and bulkier.

Physical Features of Dire Wolves

Though dire wolves were once common animals in North America and were apparently an important part of their ecosystem, until now researchers have known surprisingly little about them. Almost fifty scientists from a range of institutions were involved in the latest research project. Based on their studies, the scientists say that the dire wolf was a canid that was about twenty percent larger than today’s gray (or grey) wolf. It had a bigger head and more powerful jaws. It also had teeth that were well adapted for cutting through meat.

A Mauricio Antón illustration of dire wolves protecting their prey from gray wolves is shown in several of the references at the end of this article. It’s also shown in the video below at the 1:25 mark. The illustration was made in consultation with the researchers. It’s probably as accurate as it can be according to the current knowledge of the animal. Scientists know that dire and gray wolves did meet one another during the later part of the dire wolf’s history.

The researchers say that they have no direct evidence about the colour of the dire wolf’s hair. The illustrator chose to make the hair red-brown and to make the animal look somewhat like a large dhole. The dhole is an extant (living) canid in Asia. In a comment made about Nymeria, Ghost, and Lady (direwolves in Game of Thrones), one of the researchers says she suspects that the dire wolf may have resembled a dhole. It would have been significantly bigger and bulkier, though. It’s important to realize that the researcher isn’t saying that dire wolves evolved from the dhole or vice versa.

I suspect Nymeria, Ghost and Lady [three of the dire wolves in “Game of Thrones”] would look more like one of the more warm-adapted canids, such as dholes.

— Angela Perri, Durham University, via NBC

Range, Habitat, and Diet

Animals identified as dire wolves lived in North America from around 250,000 years ago up to around 13,000 years ago. The latest research indicates that they lived in the warmer latitudes and more temperate habitats of the continent. They were occasionally found in South America and in tropical habitats as well. Gray wolves evolved in Eurasia and travelled across the land bridge that once connected Europe to South America. The dire wolf is thought to have evolved in North America.

Dire wolves are believed to have hunted for their prey in packs, as modern gray wolves do. One piece of evidence supporting this idea is that bones of the animals that were broken and then healed have been discovered. This suggests that other members of the pack provided the injured animals with food while they recovered from their injury.

The animal’s prey is thought to have consisted of large herbivores such as bison, horses, and camels. (Camels originated in North America.) These were bigger animals than the ones typically eaten by gray wolves. The large herbivores either became extinct or dramatically decreased in numbers about 13,000 years ago as the Pleistocene ended. This date corresponds with the disappearance of the dire wolves.

A bubble of natural asphalt or brea at the La Brea Tar Pits

A bubble of natural asphalt or brea at the La Brea Tar Pits

Skeletal Remains of the Species

The first skeletal remains of the species were discovered in the nineteenth century. Over 4,000 remains of dire wolves have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits in the heart of Los Angeles in California. The area contains natural asphalt, or brea, which is a dark and gooey liquid. It’s made during the breakdown of organic matter (or matter that was once living) into petroleum. The wolves are believed to have died while trying to grab their prey trapped in the brea.

While many bones have been discovered in the brea, genetic material hasn’t been found. Fortunately, scientists have found preserved DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in the bones of the animals stored in museums and universities. The DNA ranges from 13,000 years old to 50,000 years old. The researchers have also examined proteins in the animals’ bones. DNA is an amazing chemical that contains the genes of organisms. A simplified view of a section of a DNA molecule is shown below.

A DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix. In the illustration above, the helix has been unwound and flattened. The order of nitrogenous bases on one strand of the helix forms the genetic code. The four bases are Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, and Cytosine.

Genome and Evolutionary Line of the Dire Wolf

New knowledge about dire wolves has appeared because researchers have recently found and sequenced about a quarter of the genome of five individuals and have reported their results. “Sequencing the genome” means identifying the order of chemicals called nitrogenous bases in the DNA inside an organism’s cells. Most of the DNA is located in the nucleus of a cell.

A DNA molecule is double-stranded. The order of bases on one strand forms the genes of an organism. The genes give an organism its characteristics. They do this by coding for the proteins that the body needs. Other equipment in the cell makes the proteins.

Mitochondria are organelles that provide us and other animals with energy. Human mitochondria each contain 37 genes. The genes play a role in the processes that occur inside the mitochondria. Both nuclear genes and mitochondrial ones of dire wolves have been found.

The scientists involved in the genome research say that dire wolves were part of an evolutionary line that diverged from the one that gave rise to modern members of the family Canidae a long time ago—perhaps as long as six million years ago. Today’s members of the family Canidae include gray wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, and other dog-like animals. It’s possible that dire wolves developed their wolf-life features due to a process called convergent evolution. During this process, animals that are not closely related develop similar features because the features are helpful for survival in the environment.

The blue structure in the cell above is the nucleus, where most of an organism’s genes are located. The mitochondria (the plural form of mitochondrion) are organelles that produce energy for the cell. They also contain genes.

Why Did Dire Wolves Become Extinct?

The genetic evidence indicates that dire wolves didn’t interbreed with other species of canids and were genetically isolated. Gray wolves, coyotes, and some other canids are known to interbreed with other species in their family, picking up new genes as they do so. These genes produce genetic diversity in the species. The diversity is sometimes beneficial and may enable some animals in the species to survive a population stress.

The dire wolf didn’t gain new genes from other canids or develop genetic diversity as a result. It’s thought that the dire wolves in North America must have been geographically isolated from other canids for so long that when they finally met them they were too biologically different to interbreed.

The lack of diversity may have given the animals a disadvantage as the environment changed at the end of the Pleistocene. One suggestion is that when the animal’s favoured prey animals disappeared as the climate changed, the highly specialized dire wolf population couldn’t adapt to the situation by finding new prey or at least by finding prey that was suitable for its survival. It’s also possible that the warming climate caused diseases that the wolves were unable to fight or that harmful genetic mutations appeared and spread within the population. Further discoveries may enhance or modify these ideas. Unfortunately, when the dire wolves became extinct, their branch of the canid lineage came to an end.

Improving Our Knowledge of the Species

Studying an extinct animal often happens in stages. Earlier scientists had to rely on observations of dire wolf skeletons and interpretations based on these observations as they studied the animal. The latest research improves the situation because some of the animal’s genes have been discovered. The researchers point out that the full genome of the dire wolf hasn’t been discovered yet, however.

There may be some significant information in the remaining parts of the animal’s genome that would improve our understanding of the species. I’m hoping that the rest of the genome is discovered and that reports of new discoveries will be published soon. I find the family Canidae very interesting,

Genetic material from an animal degrades after death and can be difficult to find in an ancient creature. It’s wonderful when scientists find intact genes. Finding and studying the genes of animals such as the dire wolf may give us a better understanding of a world that has disappeared. That’s a fascinating thought.

References

  • The dire wolf may not have been a wolf from sciencemag.org, AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science)
  • Dire wolves were the last of an ancient new world canid lineage from Nature (Abstract)
  • New genetic clues about dire wolves from Scientific American
  • Prehistoric dire wolves looked different from those on Game of Thrones from NBC
  • The story of real-life dire wolves is emerging from Gizmodo
  • An article written by the scientists who made the genetic discoveries from The Conversation

© 2021 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 19, 2021:

Thank you for the comment and for sharing the information, Heidi. I wish my knowledge was almost limitless! The world of nature is fascinating.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 19, 2021:

I think it's fascinating to see how various species branched off on the evolutionary tree... and how behavior (such as genetic isolation) impacts it.

We saw a documentary on dogs versus wolves. The researchers noted how when faced with an obstacle for a treat, a dog would seek out a human's help, whereas a wolf would just give up or find another way. Fascinating.

Anyway, thanks for always sharing your almost limitless knowledge of our natural world!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 19, 2021:

Thanks, Flourish. I’m impressed by the technology, too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 19, 2021:

That’s interesting to hear, MG. Vancouver has some lovely sights.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 19, 2021:

A terrific article. I don't watch Game of Thrones, but you do a good job of capitalizing on biology appearing in a popular series and technology reporting on DNA sequencing. I'm impressed that scientists can do this on extinct animals.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 18, 2021:

I understand you're from British Columbia and just for the record I have been to Vancouver so many times as I have relations there.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you for the comment and for sharing your belief, EK.

EK Jadoon from Abbottabad Pakistan on April 18, 2021:

I have never heard about dire Wolf before. I am amazed by the creation of God that He made everything perfect. Thanks for adding in my knowledge, Alicia.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

It is amazing. I’m glad that gray wolves have been successful and still exist. I wish dire wolves

still existed as well.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 18, 2021:

It is truly amazing to know how animals adapt and survive and others who don't disappear. This is interesting in several aspects.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

The decoding of the genome is certainly amazing! I hope more genetic evidence about the animal’s features is found soon.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 18, 2021:

It is amazing after all of these years that some genetic decoding by scientists has determined what they know about these extinct dire wolves. I have never watched Game of Thrones, so this is the first I have heard about dire wolves, thanks to you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Alyssa. It is exciting when scientists discover new information. I think exploring the nature of the ancient world is fascinating.

Alyssa from Ohio on April 18, 2021:

This was an interesting, in-depth investigation of Dire Wolves. I was always fascinated with these creatures in Game Of Thrones (Still waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish writing the novels.) It's incredibly exciting when scientists uncover new information about the ancient world. Thank you for the information!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Hi, Eman. Thank you for the comment. I think animals from the past are interesting to investigate.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Hi, Vidya. Yes, it is sad that the animals are extinct. I would love to see them in real life. I hope scientists learn more about them. I appreciate your comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Hi, Adrienne. The life of pack animals is interesting. I hope scientists discover more about the dire wolf’s body and life.

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on April 18, 2021:

A very interesting and detailed article about the dire wolves. Thank you, Linda, for sharing all this information about this interesting animal.

VIDYA D SAGAR on April 18, 2021:

It was very interesting to read about Dire Wolves, Linda. I loved the wolves Nymeria, Ghost, and Lady and didn't think they actually existed. Thought they were fictional. Sad they are extinct. Thanks for an enlightening, well researched , beautiful article.

Adrienne Farricelli on April 18, 2021:

Learning more about an animal's evolutionary history is always fascinating. It was interesting learning how members of the pack provided the injured animals with food while recovering from their injuries.

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Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Hi, Devika. I appreciate your kind comment.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 18, 2021:

Hi AliciaC Your thorough research allows me to see a different side of nature. Your article is what we need more of here. Such information is valuable and so interesting about the Dire wolf that I have not heard of in the past.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you for the visit and comment, Mel. I’m always glad when I see one of your articles in my feed, too!

Your story about the limping wolf is very interesting. I agree with your statement about the problem with the definition of “species.”

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you very much, Fran. I think that science is a fascinating topic.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you, Misbah. I always appreciate your comments. Blessings to you.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 18, 2021:

I am thrilled that one of your articles finally landed upon my feed, so I can comment on it.

I had the pleasure of seeing Gray Wolves in Yellowstone several years ago. There were three of them in the distance, and one was limping, yet the other two were licking at his bad leg and seemed to be trying to care for him, which I think gives justification to the theory that Dire Wolves cared for the sick and ailing members of their pack.

I am always fascinated by evolutionary relationships among animals and plants, and by the "species problem" as a whole. Science seems to have no clear definition of a species that works in every case. But the lack of inbreeding with wolves I think proves that Dire Wolves were a bird of a different feather indeed.

Great work, I learned something new as usual when I read your stuff.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on April 18, 2021:

Linda, always giving us such wonderful articles! I especially like your articles about extinct animals. Science seems to always unravel secrets.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on April 18, 2021:

Linda, this is very informative and interesting article. Very well written and well researched too. I really enjoyed learning about the dire wolf.

Thanks for sharing it

Blessings and Peace

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Bill. I hope you’re having a good weekend.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 18, 2021:

I never heard of them. Interesting how they became extinct. Adaptation is so very important, and they failed to do so. Always a fascinating read, Linda. Thank you!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you very much for the comment, Ann. Wolves are fascinating animals. They are interesting to observe and study.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 18, 2021:

Thanks for this education and for simplifying some of the details to the non-scientific like me! It helps understanding when in layman's terms.

I love wolves, at least the ones we know in our own times. They've always fascinated me, I think because they are sociable, live in groups and have a hierarchy. The dire wolf would be larger and a bit different, but I'm guessing they had the same characteristics.

I enjoyed reading this, as I always enjoy your hubs. It's also good to know that further research could help to improve our knowledge of the earth's history in other aspects.

Ann

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you very much, Liz. I’m hoping that more information about the dire wolf is discovered soon.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Hi, Chitrangada. Thank you for the kind comment. The animals are interesting to explore.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Hi, Bill. It’s a shame that the wolf is extinct. It must have been an interesting animal. Thank you for commenting.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 18, 2021:

This is a fascinating and very well-presented article. I had not heard of the dire wolf before. You have collected together an impressive amount of information about this extinct breed in your interesting article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

I appreciate your kindness, Urwa!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

I appreciate your comment very much, Pamela. Thank you for reading the article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2021:

Thank you for commenting and for sharing the interesting information, MG.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 18, 2021:

Excellent and informative article about the Dire wolves.

It’s great to learn about various animals through your well researched articles. Thank you for sharing another wonderful one.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on April 18, 2021:

My first recollection of hearing about the dire wolf was in the Game of Thrones series. I thought it was a mythical creature created by the show writers. How interesting to learn that the dire wolf once roamed North America, although it’s sad that they are now extinct. Thank you for educating us on another fascinating creature.

Iqra from East County on April 18, 2021:

Very interesting information, I really enjoyed reading it, I urge you to write similar articles in the future. Thanks and thanks and thanks for sharing this :-)

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 18, 2021:

This is a fascinating article, Linda. First, I did not know camels originated in N. America. The dire wolf is so interesting as it cared for its own injured and the way it did not interbred. The

I really enjoyed learning about the wolf. This is an excellent, very interesting article.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 17, 2021:

Linda, this is a fascinating article and as I love wildlife I had to give my appreciation. Wolves are common in the Thai and Indian jungles and if they are in pairs a danger to face.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2021:

Thank you very much, John. I enjoy learning about the animals that once existed on Earth, too.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 17, 2021:

Very interesting information about the Dire Wolf, Linda. I always enjoy reading about extinct species of animals, especially new findings.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2021:

Thank you very much for the comment, Ravi. At the moment, the researchers say the dire wolf was on its own evolutionary line that was different from that of the canids that exist today, including the dingo. The decision may change if further information about the dire wolf’s genome is discovered.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on April 17, 2021:

Very useful article Linda on dire wolves. I had heard about them but your article filled me with more facts. One question - these wolves look suspiciously similar to the Australian Dingo dog whose lineage is very ancient, Is there any connection ? Thanks for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2021:

Thanks for the comment, Peggy. I love to learn new things, too, especially in relation to nature.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 17, 2021:

I have never heard the term 'dire wolves,' but thanks to you, I now know more about their existence. Thanks for your article about them. I love learning new things.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2021:

Hi, Dora. Yes, I enjoy reading the latest news about animals and biology very much. There always seems to be something fascinating to read! Thanks for commenting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 17, 2021:

It's interesting that you would like new reports of new discoveries concerning these animals. Seems that you can't get enough of them. Without your research, we wouldn't even know the names of all these strange creatures. Thank you for sharing the information.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2021:

Thank you for the comment, DW Davis. I appreciate your visit.

DW Davis from Eastern NC on April 17, 2021:

I had heard and read the term dire wolves but always thought of them along the lines of werewolves. To learn they existed and were not actually wolves at all is an eye-opener for me. Thank you.

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