By Joshua Hurn
Durham University is leading the way in analysing the DNA of the infamous dire wolves, popularised by Game of Thrones.
The University is leading an international team, made up of scientists from countries such as Australia, to map the history of the animals. The team is made up of 49 scientists from nine different countries.
The research is being funded by a number of institutions, including the Marie Curie COFUND, the National Science Foundation and the European Research Council. Scientists from the University of Oxford are also aiding research.
The dire wolf is one of the most famous prehistoric carnivores from what is today North America. Known scientifically as Canis dirus, meaning ’fearsome dog’, they preyed on large mammals like bison.
The team suggests the dire wolves’ stark evolutionary divergence from grey wolves places them in an entirely different genus – Aenocyon dirus (‘terrible wolf’). This was first proposed by palaeontologist John Campbell Merriam over 100 years ago.
Dire wolves previously inhabited North America until around 13,000 years ago when they subsequently went extinct. Little is known about their evolution and the exact events around their extinction and this is something the project is hoping to uncover.
The study has so far proved that the wolves split from other members of their species six million years ago and now only slightly resemble today’s wolves. This discounts previous research which hinted that they were close relatives of grey wolves today.
The team sequenced the ancient DNA of five dire wolf subfossils from several states in the USA including Idaho. Many of the fossils were around 50,000 years old. Research has thus far proved that dire wolves failed to interbreed with other species of wolf, hinting that they were ill equipped to evolve fast enough to deal with changing conditions towards the end of the ice age.
Image: Durham University