Pop Culture’s Favorite Wolf Re-Examined

New DNA evidence has emerged about dire wolves, a North American species that went extinct 13,000 years ago. Dire wolves became TV’s most popular wolves after they were featured on the show Game of Thrones, but new analysis has changed their entire species classification.

Much about dire wolves has been unknown throughout history. Fossils evidence of their bones and teeth showed that they were anatomically similar to gray wolves, but 20% bigger. This led scientists to classify them in the same species group as gray wolves. However, a new 2021 study done by archaeologists at Durham University in collaboration with scientists from around the world has proven this to be false. The study examined multiple full genomes, and revealed that dire wolves are evolutionarily very different from gray wolves. Dire wolves evolved in the Americas, completely separately from gray wolves in Eurasia. Dr. Alice Mouton, one of the co-lead authors stated that “We have found the dire wolf is not closely related to the grey wolf. Further we show that the dire wolf never interbred with the grey wolf…Dire wolves likely diverged from grey wolves more than five million years ago, which was a great surprise that this divergence occurred so early. This finding highlights how special and unique the dire wolf was” (Milligan 2021). The fact that there is no evidence that dire wolves ever interbreed with other wolves further highlights how separated they were as a species. 

The research drew on archaeological evidence from a number of places. One of the primary sites for dire wolf fossils is the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, which consists of sticky asphalt. Predators would follow their prey into the pits and then get stuck there, becoming fossilized forever. However, the pits are not the best preservation site for DNA samples, because of how hot the environment is. In order to get further DNA evidence co-author Angela Perri traveled across the US to various university and museum collections in order to find more samples. The team was eventually able to put together five different dire wolf genetic profiles to analyze. The results that revealed dire wolves to be so dramatically different from gray wolves were shocking to the team. Their hypotheses had placed dire wolves as a subspecies or branch of gray wolves, rather than a totally different evolutionary species. Perri remarked that “I think I can speak for the whole group when I say the results were definitely a surprise” (Black 2021). 

This study answered questions about dire wolves that scientists have been asking for years. But questions around the extinction of dire wolves still remain. Factors such as climate change, competition from other wolves, diseases, and humans could have all contributed. While further research might be able to help answer these questions we may never be able to gain a complete picture of dire wolves. However, this study demonstrates the value of archaeological research in being able to shift entire understandings and perspectives of the past.

Further Reading:





Anderson, Andrea. 2021. “Dire wolves were real—and even stranger than we thought.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/dire-wolf-dna-study-reveals-surprises.

Black, Riley, Angela Perri, and Kieren Mitchell. 2021. “Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves, New Genetic Clues Reveal.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/dire-wolves-were-not-really-wolves-new-genetic-clues-reveal/.

Grimm, David. 2021. “The legendary dire wolf may not have been a wolf at all.” Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/legendary-dire-wolf-may-not-have-been-wolf-all.

Marsh, Calum. 2019. “Why Game of Thrones Had to Shoo Away Its Direwolves.” Vulture. https://www.vulture.com/2019/05/game-of-thrones-direwolves-effects-difficulty.html.

Milligan, Markus. 2021. “Ancient DNA Reveals Secrets of Dire Wolves.” HeritageDaily. https://www.heritagedaily.com/2021/01/ancient-dna-reveals-secrets-of-dire-wolves/136780.

Randall, Keith. 2021. “DNA Reveals Lineage Of Ancient Dire Wolves – Texas A&M Today.” Texas A&M Today. https://today.tamu.edu/2021/01/13/dna-reveals-lineage-of-ancient-dire-wolves/.

Figure 1. This image from Game of Thrones indicated how dire wolves had been thought to look and how they have been represented in pop culture. New evidence points to their fur having been redder and their ears being rounder. Photograph from Vulture.

Figure 2. A representation of what dire wolves may have looked like. Drawing by Maurico Anton.


The Business of Garbology

Garbology, the study of trash, was created by archaeologist Bill Rathje in the 1970s. Garbology involves examining waste in order to discover patterns about human behavior. These patterns can also be an important business strategy. Companies study waste in order to determine how well their products are doing in comparison to their competitors. 

In the 1970s a popular UK yogurt brand, Ski, started to face major competition. In order to do market research and compare Ski’s sales to their competitors, a garbology study was conducted. The study was done by Audits of Great Britain, through a “dustbin audit.” This meant that households across the UK were paid to put their trash from certain products and brands in a separate trash can. The trash was then collected and cataloged, revealing how often certain products were being purchased. Ski and their competitors were all on the list of products to be separated. The study revealed Ski’s success over the competition. This was a crucial marketing strategy, as it revealed that Ski was outperforming other brands, and allowed for them to negotiate favorable shelf space with grocery stores and other retailers. 

Garbology is also used for corporate espionage. Companies have been involved in elaborate schemes to steal trash from their rivals, all in the hopes of gaining valuable intelligence on their products. One example of this is the 2001 conflict between hair-care companies Proctor & Gamble (P&G) and Unilever. P&G admitted to going through Unilever’s trash in hopes of gathering information. Senior P&G officials were supposedly unaware of the operation and put a stop to it after finding out. This involved handing documents over to Unilever, firing multiple employees involved, and issuing an official apology. This example is one of many where companies have been caught spying. In fact, there are those who have made their careers in the garbology side of corporate espionage. Marc Barry, co-author of Spooked: Corporate Espionage in America, claims to have searched over 2,500 dumpsters throughout his career, but that it is one of the riskiest forms of corporate espionage, because “If one of your agents gets caught, there’s no plausible deniability” (Sachdev 2001). While risky, many companies use garbology as an intelligence strategy because of how much information they can gain on their competitors’ products, making it a surefire way to get ahead. 

The numerous ways in which garbology can be applied to marketing and business strategy demonstrates how valuable of a tool it is. When studying trends of human behavior or advancements in products, trash is an important physical data point. As a business strategy it is a way of studying the market in order to get ahead. There are some ethical concerns with how these strategies may be conducted, and most of them are deemed unprofessional, as they are initiated by one company without the others’ consent. However, these strategies persist, as it is difficult to doubt their business-advancing results. 


Students sorting through trash to be cataloged

Example of a waste/dustbin audit

Further Reading:

History of Garbology:


Garbology and Our Future:



Baraniuk, Chris. 2022. “Garbology: How to spot patterns in people’s waste.” BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220429-garbology-how-to-spot-patterns-in-peoples-waste.

Boisvin, Lindsey, and Karen Cheng. 2016. “Animated waste installation | UW Facilities Blog.” UW Facilities. https://facilities.uw.edu/blog/posts/2016/04/18/uw-garbology.

“Garbology – Meaning, Importance & Example.” 2020. MBA Skool. https://www.mbaskool.com/business-concepts/marketing-and-strategy-terms/17878-garbology.html#3.

Logue, Stephen. 2016. “History of Ski.”

Sachdev, Ameet. 2001. “P&G admits Unilever garbage search.” Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2001-09-01-0109010181-story.html.

“Waste Audit – Getting Started – Reductioninmotion.com.” 2022. Reduction In Motion. https://reductioninmotion.com/waste-consulting/waste-audit/.