Dire Wolves on Ice

Ghost – a Game of Thrones dire wolf (HBO).

Game of Thrones fans, rejoice: the dire wolf is real. Here’s the bad news: the dire wolf went extinct 10.000 years ago. The enormous beasts who roamed the ice wasteland beyond The Wall are based on a real North American animal, who in turn left behind thousands of fossils. I have to admit that the dire wolf Ghost and his pack are the main reason why I continue to watch that show.

Ford in a snow quasi-wasteland.

The dire wolf is a close relative of the grey wolf and also (drum roll) of the dog. Meet my toned-down version of the dire wolf: Ford. Like Ghost, my dog also loves snowy wastelands. Ford is the only canine in a small pack of three (the two other members are human beings), where I am pack leader (or at least I like to think I am). That means Ford will obey me when I tell him not to chase that delicious squirrel or pounce on that fatty pigeon.

Ford.

Ford weighs around 60 lbs, which is about half the size of a large dire wolf. Large wolves could reach 175 lbs, and the ones featured on Game of Thrones were as big as a horse (fictional wolves don’t count: they had magical powers; the evidence of magical powers has not been found in fossils yet). If Ford was a dire wolf 10.000 years ago, he would have probably hunted on a pack with 30 other buddies, and something tells me this group would not be after squirrels or pigeons. Instead, dire wolves hunted for mammoths. 

A fantastic wall of thousands of dire wolf skulls. Photo by the Page Museum.

A wall of skulls

The Rancho de La Brea, in Los Angeles, is fossil site where thousands of prehistoric ice age animals were entrapped, their bones perfectly preserved in tar. In this tar pit, fossil bones of 3600 dire wolves were found. This is the largest amount of a predator specimens ever found in one site, and it way outnumbers all other mammals found in the same site. Saber-toothed cats are next on the list, but not nearly as numerous (“only” about 2000 are found on the tar pits). Much fewer prey animals were found, about 200 horses and 300 bison, which means there’s a ratio of ten predators to each prey.

What happened here? It seems one unlucky prey animal – say, a bison – would fall in the pit and become trapped. Right after, packs of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats would believe it an easy meal and jump in. Result: prey and predator – specifically one prey and dozens of predators – die together.

Today, the Page Museum displays finds from the tar pits (including an impressive wall of dire wolf skulls). Fossils are so numerous that the Page Museum recruits and trains volunteers to help with the ongoing excavations (volunteer finds are posted on the museum’s blog).

Dire wolf artistic depiction by Mauricio Anton.

Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! (Or: the hunting habits of carnivore predators)

Before they went extinct, the dire wolf and the saber-toothed cat were as dominant predators as the lion and hyena are today in Africa. The high number of skeletons found on the tar pits suggested they (both dire wolves and saber-tooth) hunted in large packs and were able to tackle enormous prey – bison and camels, but also mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and Irish elk. Carnivores weighing more than 46lbs need to eat prey that is as large or larger than themselves. Those predators cannot survive only on small prey, because they would spend a disproportionally higher amount of energy hunting the prey than they would get by eating it. So, the efficient way to eat is to hunt for large prey. The devised strategy adopted by many carnivores is to form a pack. Grey wolves exhaust the prey, but lions or dire wolves, who are larger and more stockish, pounce and grab them.

From left to right: dire wolf, saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear, cheetah-like cat (Miracinonyx sp.), American lion. (Modified from Turner, A., and Anton, M., The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. Columbia University Press: New York, 1997)

Extinction

The dire wolf’s cousin, the grey wolf, is now considered a top North American predator. But the grey only reached this post after many large carnivores went extinct. Both the grey wolf and the dire wolf co-existed with 10 other species of large carnivore: the puma, jaguar, two species of short-faced bear, florida-spectackled bear, black bear, scimitar-toothed cat, saber-toothed cat, grizzly bear, and the American lion. All 12 carnivores competed for similar prey. Most of those predators became extinct 10.000 years ago (ever wondered why there are no lions, tigers, or elephants in the US? Because they died off after climate change or food depletion). Now only the puma, black bear, and grizzly bear remain.

Compared to the grey wolf, dire wolves had shorter stouter legs and smaller brain cases. They also had stronger teeth, comparable to a hyena’s in its bone-crunching abilities (which probably means food was scarce and every bit of bone marrow was precious). Dire wolf teeth is more adapted for “carnivority”, which means they are not as versatile in eating alternatives (other carnivores, like bears, will eat even bugs and honey). All of that contributed to their demise.

Ford looks at his extinct canid relatives.

Survival of the coldest

But here’s a fact Game of Thrones did not tell us: dire wolves were creatures of warm weather! They preferred tropical or subtropical regions. One of the reasons the grey wolves survived and dire wolves didn’t is because the grey wolf’s hunting range extended to the cold arctic. During the Ice Age, the dire wolf was left behind, to die and disappear.

But I guess the appeal of a beast of the tropics does not suit Game of Thrones. Ford, for once, prefers snow and cold, and becomes very depressed on the summer. Instead of the dire wolf, Ford would have fit in perfectly in Winterfell.

2 responses to “Dire Wolves on Ice

  1. Very interesting! I liked how you used the threads of Ford and GoT to tie things together throughout the article.
    Also, it would be awesome if American lions liked the cold, because then the Lannister and Stark animals would have the opposite weather preferences than in the books/show… :)

  2. Pingback: De-extinction: the wooly mammoth is the biophysicist’s cancer | Dogs on Ice

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