Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Dire Wolf

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Biodiversity, Wildlife, Extinction, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

You are familiar with the scientific tradition in a multiauthored research paper--main authors followed by et al. I'm not going to name or count contributors (authors/institutions ) who are cited as authors of "Dire wolves were the last of an ancient New World canid lineage" escept to cite the author citationthis is the author citation: Perri, A.R., Mitchell, K.J, Mouton, A. et al. It was published in Nature, behind a full fire wall but some details, including the above as well as a few maps and tables, if you are interested in the effort this research required.

David Grimm, a writer for the journal Science (US) has a summary although there are other choices if you want to check since the research has been widely reported on.. He writes,

"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 (Canis dirus), 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. Now, the first analysis of dire wolf DNA finds they instead traveled a lonely evolutionary path: They are so different from other wolves, coyotes, and dogs that they don’t belong in the genus that includes these animals. Instead, researchers argue, they need an entirely new scientific classification."

I've no idea of what Game of Thrones is, having never seen it, but I knew a little about the dire wolf thanks to the La Brea tarpits. The common name seems kinder than the Latin meaning "terrible wolf" but both names suggest you'd not like to meet one face to nose on a dark night. That's enough to interest a schoolboy. Ah, the power of mythology. 

It turns out these wolves were quite likely to be distinct, a loner in more ways than one, not closely related to what occurred as obvious to most: the gray wolf (Canis lupus). The Wiki entry on the dire wolf notes that it was paleontologist John C. Merriam who in a paper published in 1918, "proposed consolidating (specimen names) under the separate genus Aenocyon (from ainos, ‘terrible’ and cyon, ‘dog’) to become Aenocyon dirus,but at that time not everyone agreed with this extinct wolf being placed in a new genus separate from the genus Canis."

What held up progress in determining who it is and its lineage was a lack of corroborating evidence: DNA. The work of the researchers was to recover usable DNA who "recovered about one-quarter of the nuclear genome and the full mitochondiral DNA across five individuals ranging in age from about 13,000 to 50,000 years old" (samples from dire wolf remains at universities and museums). The team suggests a reclassification that "dire wolves would become Aeonocyon dirus" once more.

Dire wolves were not as large as presented today in popular culture--maybe 20% larger than today's gray wolves but noticeable in skeletal remains (and it could be they weren't gray either--Grimm discusses this possibility). We all want to know what contributed to their seeming abrupt extinction They were successful on this continent from about 250,000 to 13,000 years ago--perhaps it was the disappearance of their preferred prey and then later human hunting. 

Grimm closes with a quote from Angela Perri, the lead author, "These animals were not mythological beasts. They lived among us, not that long ago, the world was full of creatures we will never see again."

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