Dire Wolf DNA Analysis Reveals a Surprising Ancestry

By Dr. Rowland, Paleontologist & Las Vegas Natural History Museum Lab Manager

Dire wolves, which recently became famous in pop culture via 'Game of Thrones,' were real wolves! They were probably the dominant predators in the Las Vegas Valley during the Pleistocene Ice Age. However, we don’t find a lot of their bones here, especially compared to their amazing abundance in the @labreatarpits of Los Angeles - but we find some. The tar pits were carnivore traps. 1 camel might have gotten stuck in the tar & a pack of dire wolves responded to the camel’s distress call. The result was one camel skeleton & several dire wolf skeletons preserved in the tar. In our Tule Springs deposits of Southern Nevada, the relative abundance of carnivores & herbivores in the fossil record is more representative of the relative abundance of these two groups in nature: lots of herbivores & many fewer carnivores.


The ancestry of dire wolves has long been a mystery. Were they closely related to gray wolves (the living species of wolf)? The image is a painting by Mauricio Anton, showing these 2 species competing for a carcass; the gray wolves are gray, and the dire wolves are depicted as reddish. Dire wolves were about 20% bigger than gray wolves.


A new DNA study of dire wolves, published this week in the journal "Nature," reveals some surprises. Paleontologists assumed that dire wolves were closely related to gray wolves & coyotes, all of which are classified as separate species within the genus Canis. We assumed that these three species probably interbreeded - the DNA indicates otherwise. The data indicate that dire wolves are genetically *very distinct* and that they did not interbreed.


The 2 lineages diverged about 5 million years ago. Dire wolf DNA is so distinct that the researchers who conducted the DNA study recommend removing dire wolves from the genus 'Canis' & putting them in a separate genus, 'Aenocyon,' which means ‘terrible wolf.’


Dire wolves became extinct about 13k years ago, along with many other species of North American Ice Age mammals. The causes of this extinction are still being debated by paleontologists and archaeologists, but we know that it coincides with the arrival of human hunters from Asia.

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