In an exciting discovery, Canada has now officially entered the realm of the dire wolf. For the first time, a Canadian fossil has been positively identified as belonging to the Ice Age predator that has captured imaginations through its portrayal in the popular TV series Game of Thrones. This significant finding comes from an area near Medicine Hat in southern Alberta, and while the specimen's identity had been proposed tentatively in the past, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum has employed cutting-edge technology to conclusively establish its origins.

Lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Quaternary Science, evolutionary biologist Ashley Reynolds, emphasized the novelty of this revelation. "It had never been fully described," Reynolds remarked, adding that such comprehensive study had never been undertaken for this particular specimen.

Unraveling the Mystery of Identification

The task wasn't simple. The fossil, estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000 years old, comprises a single jaw fragment, significantly crushed, with a few remaining teeth. Reynolds noted, "We could tell pretty clearly right away it was a member of the dog family, about the size of a wolf." The choice lay between a grey wolf and a dire wolf, usually distinguishable based on dental characteristics. However, due to the advanced age of the animal, tooth wear had obscured key features.

As dire wolves tend to be notably larger than grey wolves, the individual in question fell within the size range of both species. This prompted the researchers to adopt a different approach.

Solving the Enigma

The team meticulously charted points along the fossil's outline and harnessed computer software to estimate its shape. This digitally inferred shape was then compared to established values of both grey and dire wolves. "Based on the parts of the shape we do have, which does it look more like," Reynolds elucidated.

Remarkably, this dire wolf specimen holds the distinction of being the northernmost confirmed example of its species ever discovered. This geographical rarity is attributable to the extensive ice sheet that once covered much of what is now Canada during that era.

An Icy Glimpse into the Past

The ice's intermittent retreats occasionally unveiled habitats that stretched from the Yukon to central and southeast Alberta, fostering an array of Ice Age creatures that is almost surreal to contemplate amid the current landscape. Among these were immense ground sloths, wild horses, camels, mammoths, and mastodons. Reynolds's earlier research in the same deposit had also uncovered remains of sabretooth cats.

Significance of the Discovery

The confirmation of dire wolf presence enhances our understanding of Canada's Ice Age ecology, Reynolds explained. "We're starting to get a better picture of what lived in Canada in ages past. We see a fauna that is very similar to what we would see even in California."

However, this region would have offered a unique confluence of both southern and Arctic species. Evidence hints at the potential existence of cave lions in the area, showcasing the intricacies of its ecological makeup.

While the dire wolf specimen under scrutiny presents limitations due to its relatively small size and advanced age, its survival underscores its adaptability and success as a predator. Reynolds underscored that much about Ice Age Canada remains uncharted territory for researchers. "Canadian fossils, especially from the time after the dinosaurs, are relatively understudied," she noted. "We're really just starting to figure out what the landscape looked like."

dire wolf from Canada.png
A figure from the new study shows the lower jaw of a grey wolf, top, a dire wolf from Peru, middle, and the badly crushed fossil found in Medicine Hat, Alta. Researchers finally identified the latter fossil as a dire wolf. (Ashley Reynolds/Royal Ontario Museum/Journal of Quaternary Science)