It was always assumed that the dire wolf and its kin, the endemic extinct North American wolves, were very closely related to modern wolves.
However, the genome of the dire wolf was just sequenced by a team of independent researchers at the Russian Institute of Cytology in Saint Petersburg. The team of geneticists and paleontologists was led by Boris Yudin. The team wanted to have access to the remains of dire wolves at Rancho La Brea, but they were instead able to obtain access to several skeletons that were being held at the Indiana Museum of Natural History.
“It was very hard to get access to the specimens,” says Yudin, who has always been fascinated by Pleistocene North American megafauna, “But once we did get access, the DNA sequences were quite easily obtained from the shoulder bones.”
“We were able to get one full genome sequenced, and then we began to compare this genome with other species in the genus Canis,” says Yudin, “and using a Bayesian analysis, we were quite shocked to learn that the dire wolf wasn’t really a wolf at all.”
Most paleontologists had believed that the dire wolf was a sister species to the modern gray wolf, and if this assumption were true, the dire wolf genome would be most similar to this species.
However, the dire wolf didn’t share an affinity with the gray wolf. Instead, it shared a much stronger relationship with the black-backed jackal, a species of canid found in East and Southern Africa, which is quite genetically distant from other wolves and jackals.
“There is even a debate as to whether the black-backed jackal even properly belongs in Canis,” says Yudin, “It is so genetically divergent. But our research found that the dire wolf and the black-backed jackal are sister tax.”
Using the genetic differences between the dire wolf and the black-backed jackal to calculate when they last shared a common ancestor, Yudin’s team estimated that the two species split only about a million years ago. Black-backed jackals and their current living closest relative, the side-striped jackal, are believed to have diverged from the rest of Canis some 5 million years ago, and the same is true of the dire wolf.
“The two divergent African jackals and the dire wolf form a clade, and if we are to classify the two jackals outside of Canis, then the same will have to be done with the dire wolf,” Yudin points out.
“Within the dog family, the tendency towards parallel and convergent evolution cannot be underestimated. We now know there are jackals and wolves that exist now and have existed that come out of divergent lineages. This is the most important discovery,” says Yudin.
So now we have the golden wolf of Africa, which is a convergent form of jackal out of the wolf lineage, and we have the extinct dire wolf, which was a divergent jackal that evolved into a wolf.
Yudin’s team plans on extracting the genome of the Armbruster’s wolf, which is conventionally believed to have been the direct ancestor of the dire wolf. If this is true, then the Armbruster’s wolf will also share an affinity with the black-backed jackal. The team also is beginning an analysis of Pleistocene coyote genomes from across the United States.
“It is an amazing time, ” says Yudin. “Many discoveries to be made.”
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