If you are a fan of Game of Thronesyou probably know the names of the Starks' dire wolves: Ghost, Nymeria, Summer, Shaggy Dog, Lady and Grey Wind. What you probably don't know is that the dire wolves actually existed, evolved, and became extinct on our planetaround 10,000 years BP. In latin, Canis dirus means "fearsome dog," and these wolves indeed were fearsome. Click on the photo to acces the photogallery!

The real dire wolves: size andbite force

Most of the studies base their speculations upon the fossils found in North America and South America.

The estimated body mass for Canis dirus dirus aka dire wolf is 68 kg/150 lb, with a possible upper limit of 110 kg/240 lb. In comparison, the body mass of the largest, extant gray wolves is around 80 kg/176 lb.

In other words, the average size of a dire wolf was the same of the largest gray wolves, and you can imagine how big a particularly large dire wolf was.

A study estimated the dire wolf bite force in 163 Newtons/kg of body weight, against a gray wolf's estimated bite force of 136 Newtons/kg of body weight. As you can see, the real dire wolves weren't so different from the ones in Game of Thrones.

The dire wolf's life: hunt, love, watch out for the Smilodon

Dire wolves hunted in packs. Since their size wasbigger than extant wolves, the estimated prey size was in the 300-600 kg range.

According to a study by Anyonge and Roman (published on Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26: 209), a pack of dire wolves hunting a bison is "conceivable", but fossils indicates that the dire wolf wasn't a prey specialist: he hunted off the most available herbivores.

The fossils also show little sexual dimorphism, which means little differences between male and female dire wolves.

Studies indicate that dirus lived in monogamous pairs: the pack wasn't led by an alpha male, it was led by an alpha pair.

Talking about competitors, the gray wolf competed with the dirus on its arrival into North America. For sure one of the most common competitors was the Smilodon, aka the saber tooth cat, as confirmed by overlapping fossil findings in North America.

The dire wolf's extinction

12,700 years before present, during the American megafaunal extinction, the dire wolf and other 32 genera of large mammals disappeared. Why? According to many studies, the reason is the extinction of their megaherbivore prey. The dire wolf disappeared from our planet approximately ten thousand years ago.

In the last few years, though, the dire wolf has become a very popular fantasy figure thanks to Game of Thrones. The fantasy versions of thesefascinating animals are so much loved by the public that we can say that even if a lot of fans love Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, almost every fan in the world loves the Starks' dire wolves (or direwolves, as spelled in A Song of Ice and Fire book series).