By Timshel Purdum, Academy Director of Education and Lifelong Learning
I’m a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series by George R.R. Martin that inspired the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.” I’ve been a fan ever since the first book came out, and I’ve read the entire series—twice. I’m also a fan of the show and it’s been fantastic watching my favorite characters, like Tyrion Lannister played by Peter Dinklage, come to life.
As we approach the April 12 premiere date for season 5, I will admit to being one of the fans nervously anticipating what will happen to the characters, both human and animal, as the TV series begins to diverge from the books. From Daenerys’ dragons to the Stark dire wolves, the beasts of Essos and Westeros are beloved by all and an integral part of the story.
If you’ve followed me so far, you’ll probably appreciate the euphoric experience I had in February during the Academy of Natural Sciences’ annual Paleopalooza—a fossil festival of gigantic proportions. There I was, engaging the public on the topic of “Animals you are glad are extinct (but not really)” and getting my geek on with visitors who shared my love of “Game of Thrones” in front of a model of a dire wolf skull.
That’s right. You heard me. A DIRE WOLF. The dire wolf is a real animal, not just created by Martin for the series. (Sadly I don’t have good news about dragons … they are mythological.) Until about 10,000 years ago, biologically modern humans shared the planet with dire wolves and their dinners of choice—animals like giant sloths and mastodons. Dire wolves (Canis dirus, which means “fearsome dog”) were built slightly differently than modern gray wolves. They were heavier and stockier, adaptations for feeding on their more famous megafauna dinner items. Today, we know about dire wolves from their numerous fossils found throughout North and South America. Interestingly, dire wolves are the most common fossil in the famous Rancho La Brea tar pits in California, where the fossils of over 4,000 dire wolves have been recovered.
Now back to our story. As I talked with a visitor, Academy paleontologist Ted Daeschler (one of the discoverers of your fishy ancestor, Tiktaalik roseae) dropped by my station to say hello. Noticing the dire wolf model, Ted casually said, “We have the type specimen of the dire wolf in our collections,” and walked away.
WHAT?! Are you kidding me? How did I not know this? “Game of Thrones” has been popular FOREVER and my museum has THE fossil specimen that was described to name and identify the existence of the species for all scientists EVERYWHERE?
Now for those of you saying, “Why are you so excited? I mean dire wolves are cool and all but what’s the big deal about a type specimen anyway?” let me explain.
One of the roles of a museum is to care for and protect for the public those aspects of our cultural and natural history that are deemed important for future generations. Natural history museums like the Academy are charged with maintaining scientifically accurate data about all living and extinct species. We make our collections available to the public through exhibitions, and we provide access to researchers. Although not every museum collects every species and we all have specialties, museums around the world store and protect the knowledge of every living thing that is discovered and studied.
Type specimens are an extremely important kind of biological specimen. The scientific name of every species is typically based on the description and existence of one very important real specimen. A species name, such as Tyrannosaurus rex or Boa constrictor, is not just an idea. It’s tied to a real, tangible object that resides at a museum or a herbarium. The Academy has 18 million specimens in its collections, and 80,000 of those specimens are designated as type specimens. Discovering that my museum had the specimen of Canis dirus for which all other specimens are named simply blew my mind.