The direwolves on Game of Thrones are familiar to us: they are popular creatures in fantasy fiction. But unlike many of their mythical counterparts (dragons, giants, undead legions) dire wolves were once very real. (Note that George R. R. Martin combines both words for his version of the term direwolf, while the scientific term for the once-real animal is two separate words: dire wolf.)
There are no direwolves south of the Wall – Robb Stark
For starters, lets take a look at the direwolves we’ve all come to love, the ones that have sprung from George R. R. Martin’s imagination. The rarely-encountered direwolves of Westeros have not been seen south of the Wall for two hundred years. This circumstance (one of the first clues that the world is once again tilting out of balance) is quickly unsettled (episode one: Winter is Coming) when the Stark family discovers a dead direwolf mother and her surviving pups in the Wolfswood not far from Winterfell. As fate may have it, the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark, Lord Eddard Stark has six children, and there are six direwolf pups. Each child adopts one pup and thus Ghost (Jon Snow), Grey Wind (Robb Stark), Lady (Sansa Stark), Nymeria (Arya Stark), Summer (Bran Stark) and Shaggydog (Rickon Stark) join the Game of Thrones pantheon of creatures.
The Game of Thrones adult direwolves can grow to the size of a small horse and easily kill a man, its preferred attack being a bite to the throat, a killing method popular among large carnivore predators. Sleek, powerful and long-legged, these fantasy creatures can be domesticated to some extent as proven by their relationships to their Stark masters. They prove to be intelligent, loyal and intensely protective. Direwolves also posses a tremendous sixth sense as far as impending danger goes: Summer saves Bran Stark from an assassin’s blade in his bedroom and Ghost alerts Jon Snow to the appearance of the undead White Walker victims at Castle Black. Also, Robb Stark’s direwolf Grey Wind attacks Lannister sentries and scatters their horses at the Battle of Oxcross and Bran Stark is able to warg into the body of Summer.
The legendary direwolf of Game of Thrones is friend, protector and war beast: one heck of an animal!
Now lets take a look at the once real but now extinct dire wolf, canis diris in Latin (it means ‘fearsome dog’). The dire wolf was a carnivorous mammal which roamed the North American (and later South American) plains in the late Pleistocene epoch (40,000-10,000 years ago) at the same time as human beings. The vast majority of dire wolf limb fossils we have found belong to a single population of the creatures entombed in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. The George C. Page Tar Pits Museum collection includes fossils from over 4,000 individual dire wolves along with many other Pleistocene-era creatures entombed in the water-covered tar pits of Rancho La Brea.
The average dire wolf appears to have been roughly equivalent in height at the shoulder to the modern gray wolf but the dire wolf was considerably heavier in build (up to 70 pounds heavier) and possessing slightly larger teeth. Although similar in some ways to the modern gray wolf, the dire wolf offers some important and, for fantasy purposes, intriguing differences. A large dire wolf was much larger (up to 25%) than a modern gray wolf. The dire wolf’s legs were shorter and more robust, its bite 128% more powerful and its brain case was smaller.
The domestication of a real dire wolf 15,000 years ago was likely impossible. While still wild-dangerous, Game of Thrones direwolves appear to possess dog-like tractability: they manage to live among humans and don’t attack their owners. Modern wolves, on the other hand, prove to be largely shy, unpredictable and aggressive despite attempts at domestication because they are incapable of altering their genetically coded predatory behavior.
The real, smaller-brained dire wolf, if it was anything like its modern counterparts, would not have responded well to human training, would have been extremely dangerous to children and might likely have ripped your head off if you sneezed or cut your finger since any perceived weakness would fuel its instinct to take leadership of the pack.
The real dire wolves became extinct about 10,000 years ago, along with most other North American megafauna. One of the theories regarding the demise of canis diris is linked to the extinction of the large, slow animals (mastodon, giant sloth and the now extinct western horse, a favorite) at the end of the Pleistocene, which allowed the faster modern gray wolf (canis lupus) to out-compete the dire wolves when hunting the new faster animals they needed for food.
But the fantastical direwolves in Game of Thrones are far from extinct. They are friends to us now, protectors of our favorite characters and swords in the hands of the defenseless like Bran. Long live George R. R. Martin’s direwolf!
As a note, one modern organization is attempting breed a faux version of dire wolves. It will set you back $3000 if you want to order a Game of Thrones-style pup (which is genetically just a dog) and there’s a long waiting list.