The Hoosierist on a Terrifyingly Real ‘Game of Thrones’ Creature

As filming begins on Season 5, our columnist hunts down the Indiana origins of the dire wolf.

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Casual Game of Thrones fans might think dire wolves, the four-legged stars of the hit HBO series, are fantasy beasts like unicorns. But they are (or rather, were) quite real. And the original specimen was discovered right here in Indiana, 160 years ago this month.

In the summer of 1854, scientist Francis A. Link found a fossilized jawbone while walking the banks of the Ohio River near Evansville. Experts determined that it belonged to a new species of wild canine, to which they awarded one of the most metal-sounding names in the history of paleontology—Canis dirus, or dire wolf.

Something about this particular animal tickles the public’s fancy in a way that its contemporaries, wooly mammoths and saber-toothed cats, simply don’t. The Grateful Dead wrote a song about them, and they were turned into Dungeons & Dragons characters. Dog breeders are even trying to create a canine that looks like them.

It’s quite a bit of adulation for a beast that resembled the common gray wolf so closely that even experts would have trouble telling them apart. For the record, dire wolves were approximately the same size as grays, but slightly heavier (topping out at 175 pounds) and shorter-legged. Oh, and their mouth contained a super-powered shredding machine.

“Their big distinction was their teeth,” says Ronald L. Richards, senior research curator of paleobiology at the Indiana State Museum. “Their teeth and jaws were really heavily built. They could do a lot more bone-crushing.”

Richards, who has personally dug up their remains, says that until about 12,000 years ago, Indiana was Dire Wolf Central. The creatures died out for reasons unknown, so now the only place you can see them is on TV—or at the ISM’s Ice Age exhibit, which features several skeletons. Richards is happy they’re getting some love, even though he doesn’t quite understand the adulation.

“I guess I’m pleased that people are looking back to the past, but I think they may tend to enhance the actual animal a bit more than is real,” he says.

The biggest fallacy is undoubtedly the notion that they could be kept as pets. These animals could take down bison and then crack open their bones with their jaws. So smacking its nose with a rolled-up newspaper when it peed in the house would be a mistake. Most likely your last.

“You can’t raise a wolf and think you can change its nature,” Richards warns. “You’d be lucky to pull that off without getting killed.”

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