(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have deciphered the genome of dire wolves – large predators that lived in the Americas more than 10 thousand years ago. It turned out that they were only very distant relatives of modern wolves and coyotes. An article describing the study was published in the scientific journal Nature.
“All of our ideas about their evolutionary history, including their supposedly close relationship with modern wolves, were wrong,” said Angela Perry, a researcher at the University of Durham (UK) and one of the authors of the study.
Terrible wolves (Canis dirus) lived in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (between 125 and 9.5 thousand years ago) in the territory of modern South and North America. Scientists suggest that both in anatomy and in the manner of foraging, these animals were very similar to modern forest wolves.
Many scientists believe that Canis dirus split off from the evolutionary tree of wolves and coyotes relatively recently. Therefore, researchers argue why the latter managed to survive, while their larger relatives disappeared.
In a new study, Perry and her colleagues recovered and decoded mitochondrial genomes and scraps of nuclear DNA from the remains of five Canis dirus individuals that lived in North America about 13-50 thousand years ago. Analysis showed that dire wolves were not really that close relative of modern wolves or coyotes.
Mitochondrial DNA is one of the most “tenacious” parts of the human and other animal genome. It is passed from mothers to children and changes relatively slowly. Thanks to this, scientists can determine the origin of its owners and track their migrations.
Using this, paleogeneticists compared the mitochondrial DNA structure of dire wolves, three ancient dogs, modern gray wolves and other canines that now live in Africa, Eurasia and North America. Scientists also compared the structure of protein scraps that were preserved in the bone tissue of ancient predators and their modern canine relatives.
The analysis showed that the ancestors of dire wolves separated from the common canine evolutionary tree even before the beginning of the ice age, about 5.7 million years ago. Since then, they have not come into contact with ancient wolves and coyotes. This casts doubt on the theory that Canis dirus did not become extinct, but was crushed and “dissolved” in the population of gray wolves.
This is evidenced by the fact that scientists have not found any traces of crossbreeding between dire wolves and the ancestors of modern wolves and coyotes of North America, despite the fact that they lived in the same territory for several hundred thousand years. This was not typical for ancient dogs and modern canines, in whose genome many traces of interspecific contacts have been preserved.
The discovery by Perry and her colleagues led evolutionary biologists to wonder why gray and dire wolves were very similar in terms of anatomy, despite such distant kinship between them. Scientists hope that they will be able to find the answer to this question after they restore the complete genome of ancient predators.
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