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Despite being extinct more than 12,000 years ago, its presence on the banners of the Stark family from

Game of Thrones

has made the giant wolf (

Canis dirus)

one of the best known prehistoric animals.

Before appearing in the novels of George RR Martin, and in their television adaptation, where they are known as direwolves, these superpredators

populated the prairies and forests of North America

during much of the Pleistocene, feeding on large mammals such as bison, horses or mammoths.

Giant wolves were slightly larger than the current Yukon wolf (the largest living subspecies) and 25% heavier.

They had notably larger teeth and a bite force superior to that of any canid species, capable of crushing bones.

Morphological reconstructions had led many scientists to think that the giant wolf was a direct relative of today's wolves, but now

DNA analysis has revealed a different story.

A new study published this Wednesday in the journal


points out that the evolutionary divergence between the two species is much earlier than was supposed and would place the giant wolf in a completely different genus.

In fact, the authors propose to change its binary name to

Aenocyon dirus

, a classification that was already proposed by paleontologist John Campbell Merriam more than a century ago.

Genetic research shows that, in reality, this prehistoric species was so far removed from relatives such as the coyote or the common wolf that interbreeding was not possible.

Anatomical similarities had led to theorizing that there was a kinship similar to that between sapiens and Neanderthals, but DNA shows a more distant relationship, such as that between humans and chimpanzees.

"Instead of being closely related to other canids in North America, we have discovered that the giant wolf

represents a branch that broke away from the rest millions of years ago

. They are the last representatives of a now extinct lineage," explains Angela Perri, a researcher at the Department. of Archeology from Durham University and lead author of the article.

In the television version, the pets of Eddard Stark's children were embodied by Inuit dogs from the North - a cross between a husky and a German shepherd - or by an arctic wolf in the case of Ghost, Jon Snow's wolf (the scenes were filmed in front of chroma to later double the size of the animals using CGI).

In the novels and in the English series, the name 'Dire wolf' is used, which corresponds to the prehistoric animal known as

Canis dirus

in binomial nomenclature, and which in Spanish is called the giant wolf or terrible wolf.

However, in the Spanish version 'Dire wolf' was translated as huargo, a term that refers to a mythological animal.


"Giant wolves were always an iconic representation of the fauna of the last Ice Age in America, and now they are part of pop culture thanks to

Game of Thrones,

" says Perri.

"But what we knew about their evolutionary history was limited to what we could deduce from the size and shape of their bones and teeth."

The basis of this new work has been the

sequencing of DNA remains from five fossils

found in Wyoming, Idaho, Ohio and Tennessee, with an age of more than 50,000 years.

49 researchers from nine countries participated in the research, analyzing the genomes and comparing them with those of known species.

Still from the 'Game of Thrones' series, with Jon Snow when he finds his direwolf HBO

Their analyzes suggest that, while other canids repeatedly migrated between North America and Eurasia over time,

giant wolves evolved exclusively on the American continent, over millions of years

(little evidence of their presence in Asia has been found).

"The common wolf, the African wolf, the dogs, the coyotes and the jackals can be hybridized", explains Alice Mouton, of the University of California in Los Angeles.

"Most likely, the giant wolves were separated from the rest more than five million years ago, a divergence so far away that it is surprising. This find highlights how special and unique the giant wolf was."

This isolation can also explain the genetic difference and its disadvantages to adapt to big changes.

"It is likely that a combination of factors was behind their disappearance,"

explains Perri, "although the main cause must have been climate change that came at the end of the last Ice Age, which led to a warmer environment and the extinction of the megaherbivores on which it depended, such as mammoths, camels, giant sloths and horses. "

That moment - between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago - also marks the extinction of other superpredators, such as short-faced bears or American lions.

"In the case of the giant wolf, the introduction of new diseases brought by wolves, coyotes and dogs recently arrived from other territories, which they could not survive, could also have had an influence. And the arrival of humans, who hunted similar prey, probably it didn't help either. "

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