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Dire wolf DNA reveals ‘Stark’ differences between Game of Thrones & real world

By Benjamin Bullard
Jon Snow in Game of Thrones

From the very first episode, it was cuddly and cute to watch Jon Snow rescue a family of dire wolves, including his very own runt of the litter. An albino runt named Ghost, the loyal (if insanely large) canine would go on to grow up right alongside Game of Thrones most ill-treated Stark through the iconic HBO show’s eight seasons. But a new DNA sequencing has unraveled some of the mysteries of its real-world counterpart — and we’re pretty sure there’s not a ghost of a chance you’d want to adopt a real dire wolf as a pet…even if you could.

Thanks to a study published this week at Nature, some of our most cherished dire wolf takeaways from Game of Thrones are beginning to sound a lot like one big shaggy dog story. Not only were real dire wolves likely averse to the cold that pervaded the homeland of House Stark and its canine companions; they also may not have even been related to, or looked much like, the conventional grey wolves that provided visual inspiration for Ghost and his five siblings.

“I certainly don’t think the average dire wolf would have been excited about living in [House Stark’s] frozen Winterfell,” said the study’s lead author Angela Perri via NBC News. Perri is a zooarchaeologist at the UK’s Durham University, and, though she leads a 49-member team that’s shed fascinating light on what real-world dire wolves were really like, she’s also not reluctant about putting some of our cutest Game of Thrones fantasies on ice.

In Westeros, dire wolves look like upscaled versions of the luxuriously furry pack wolves we’re familiar with (at a safe distance, of course) here in this world. But before they went extinct from their North American habitat sometime about 12,000 years ago, the biggest thing real dire wolves had in common with their House Stark cousins was their gigantic size. DNA sequencing of a select sample among the thousands of real dire wolf fossils that’ve been discovered (including more than 4,000 just from the La Brea Tar Pits alone, according to WIRED) reveals that real dire wolves were short-haired, small-eared, and probably poorly-suited to cold climates.

They also didn’t share a strong common ancestry with the canid species we see today, according to the study. Through 5.7 million years, they descended from an ancient species so distinct from their canine counterparts that, at least near the time of their extinction, dire wolves and other wolf species likely couldn’t even interbreed. The inability to share species traits at the end of the last Ice Age may have even played a role in dire wolves’ ultimate extinction. “Dire wolves just didn’t have the ability to adapt, apparently,” said Perri.

We’re still learning how to adapt to the way things ended for Jon Snow as Game of Thrones came to a close. Even though he and Ghost had to part ways, at least Ghost managed not to go extinct. Last we saw, he was trotting off with Tormund Gaintsbane in Season 8’s fourth episode, making their way back north to rebuild the Night's Watch. With the series’ ending all but sentencing Jon to a life in permanent exile at The Wall, maybe he and Ghost finally got the reunion they deserve.