The legendary dire wolf may not have been a wolf at all

One of North America’s most famous ancient predators—and a favorite of Game of Thrones fans—emerged as mysteriously as it disappeared. Dire wolves, which died out with mammoths and saber-toothed cats at the end of the last ice age, were long thought to be close cousins of gray wolves. But biologists and paleontologists are now calling them an entirely different species. In a new Nature study, paleontologists created what is likely their first ongoing ancient DNA study of the huge predatory animals. And in it, they discovered that the first large region of Eurasian DNA called the mitochondrial genome represents small signatures of various evolutionary lineages, and has nothing to do with wolves showing up in North America 3,000 years ago. They show that these animals probably evolved in Central Asia instead, and that dire wolves are actually an offshoot of the same evo-devo lineage, originating in Asia during the last ice age, which was too cold and wet for modern Siberian wolves to thrive.

"This shows that these animals evolved in Asia, but didn't come to America," says Joel Margala of the University of Minnesota. "A pack of this size has never been found in western North America, so clearly they must have followed in some other manner."

Pokémon Go players exploring the prehistoric Baltic Falls Cave in Finland. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The researchers report that they used two modern technologies to unearth a surprisingly complete ancient genome. First, they pooled mitochondrial genomes from coprolites from nearly 400 animal skeletons, which reveal clues about the diets of those organisms' ancestral animals. Next, they reconstructed the ancient mitochondrial genome of a 58 million-year-old gray wolf suspected to have roamed Siberia, and that now lives next to Norway's Hrafnkelag cave, which gives scientists new insight into the diet and ecology of ancient mammals. Evidence suggests dire wolves started disappearing from northwestern Europe millions of years ago, so cells from western Europe now directly back up those missing DNA regions.

But this modern DNA study places dire wolves almost entirely outside North America. "It's still a little surprising that they'd become extinct in western North America," Margala says. "It shows they contained claims to the region, "Not our part directly, it goes to Europe," he adds. We think these animals must have had support from animals they fed on. These ancient DNA studies are capturing a moment because 'a lot of science is starting to make sense," Margala says. "We mean no ill will to the real living wolves—Europe's wolves really are wonderful species."

But since even small mutations in genes today have huge impacts on live animals, changes of genome size can include radically different animals. When these ancient brave new creatures had these mammoth-sized pressure shifts, Margala explains, maybe "there was
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