Fierce horrible wolves dominated the ecology of Pleistocene America. Scientists still know very little about this extinct large carnivorous animal, but a new study fills in some of the gaps. According to a new study that has consistently made five genomes from samples dating back 13,000 to more than 50,000 years, the horrible wolves were very different from today’s existing gray wolves, despite their similar appearance.
The last of the canine family in America
The terrible wolves were first discovered in the 1950s. Their abundant remains, numbering in the thousands, are scattered across the two American continents, from Canada to Bolivia. These were highly efficient predators that could grow up to two meters (~ six feet) long and had skeletal adaptations that made them suitable for shooting down the huge megafauna that roamed the earth before the last ice age.
Because of their morphology, scientists have always suggested that horrible wolves and modern wolves must have been closely related. But a new study published this week in the journal Nature it seems to remind us that such skeletons and other morphological features do not necessarily reflect kinship.
The research team, which included scientists from the University of Durham in the United States and the University of Adelaide in Australia, sequenced the DNA of five scary wolf bones. Scientists have embarked on this study to learn more about the biology of terrible wolves, but were shocked to discover from the genomic sequence that extinct beasts last shared a common ancestor with living wolf-like canines about 5.7 million years ago. Wolf wolves actually deviated from African jackals about 5.1 million years ago.
So the strong resemblance between the two, strange as it may sound, is just coincidental – a great example of a convergent evolution in which two unrelated species develop similar adaptations. In this case, two unrelated species developed a similar appearance, probably due to similar habitats and ecological niches.
And despite the frequency of hybridization among Canidae the members, the terrible wolves, and the ancestors of modern wolves and coyotes have never crossed, which must mean that they have lived in geographical isolation from each other. Yet only one of the two lines survived, so perhaps this lack of impurities may have contributed to their downfall.
It is possible that the ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes had some genetic variants that were more beneficial in the changing environment when they saw horrible wolves unable to adapt during the extinction of megafauna in the late Pleistocene. Gray wolves are known for their adaptability. Scary wolves, not so it seems.