The Dire Wolf
Canis dirus, or 'Fearsome Dog'
While it is clear the Canis dirus, or dire wolf, was a relative of the modern grey wolf, there are many differences between the two. The two did in fact co-exist alongside each other for a very long time. The prehistoric wolf had accomplished what it's modern contemporary never did. It went on down south and colonized South America during its time.
Just ten thousand years ago the species stalked the two continents of the Americas, and they did so as far back as 1.79 million years. They were indeed fearsome dogs, and they were built to bring down very large prey; much larger animals than what grey wolves hunt became their meals.
While it is true that most of the dire wolves of old would have been roughly the same size as the modern grey wolves, the larger end of the spectrum would have revealed specimens far larger. The females were often similar in size to the males; there was little to zilch in the way of sexual dimorphism within these animals.
Though the Canis dirus was indeed a relative of the modern Canis lupus, the grey wolves are not descendants of the prehistoric wolves. Strange, I know, but grey wolves have Eurasian ancestors, and the dire wolves were entirely an American wolf.
The Dire Wolf Diet
Never a specialized hunter, they were social pack animals just as are modern grey wolves and coyotes They ate whatever was abundant, and they definitely hunted in packs. With one hundred and twenty nine percent of the jaw power of modern grey wolves, these wolves were equipped to bring down the megafauna of whichever region the particular pack happened to live, and they did so mostly through many shallow bites. As different individuals of a pack would get their turn to get close to the prey being chased, the pursuit and kill of a very large animal wasn't often a short and fast thing.
They were not just meat eaters, they were meat gluttons. It is what their bodies were built for as they were hyper-carnivorous to mesocarnivorous creatures.
They ate a lot of wild horses, bison, deer, giant sloths, and the occasional sick, elderly, or young mastodon. it is also very likely that packs would scavenge or steal prey from other predators when the numbers of their pack gave a good advantage. With much larger and more powerful competitors such as the short faced bear and the saber toothed tiger, the wolves had tough lives and they depended upon their pack behavior for survival.
Comparisons to the modern grey wolves
First and foremost, the dire wolves grew larger than grey wolves, and could exceed sizes of 4'9" from nose to tail and one hundred and seventy five pounds. Secondly, the female specimens could be just as large as the males whereas grey wolves have sexual dimorphism present .
Modern grey wolves average about one hundred pounds for males, and a good fifteen to twenty pounds less in the females. The weights given here for grey wolves should be taken as averages only, Northern hemisphere grey wolves sometimes average out to be larger than the overall averages, and Northern hemisphere wolves are as a general rule larger wolves than those living in the Southern hemisphere. Such differences can be explained using Bergmann's Rule.
The dire wolves also had proportionally much shorter legs than grey wolves, and were therefore slower runners. In fact, their lesser running ability is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the species, as the grey wolves could still catch things and the dire wolves were left to scavenge for their meals. The megafauna all died out as well, limiting their food supply.
One of the major theories about where all these large majestic beasts disappeared off to includes, well, us. Did you hear me? I'm talking about us. We came, and we changed things by hunting, and there were changes to the weather and the landscape too.
Skulls at the La Brea tar pits
How can we be sure of anything concerning the dire wolf?
There are thousands of perfectly preserved skeletons of dire wolves in existence. There are far more remains available for study than practically any other Pleistocene age animal. And why? Well, the La Brea Tar Pits are often to thank. Though I have been unable to find any sort of exact number as to exactly how many skeletons have been recovered from the Los Angeles, California area Rancho La Brea tar pits, there are four hundred and fifty complete skulls on display there, and somewhere in the general neighborhood of four thousand skeletons.
Leptocyon - Forefather of the Dire Wolf
Where Did the Species Come From?
According to Wikipedia there is some controversy involved in the answering of the question, "where did dire wolves come from?"
Well, there shouldn't be too much controversy. In fact, let's just not argue about it at all. The data shows there to be far more sites in North America where Canis dirus remains have been recovered than in South America, and besides that, all the evidence regarding what they subsisted on shows that they mostly resided in North America as well.
So the species came from North America and crossed into South America during the great American interchange, the time when a bit of a bridge existed between North and South America. I'm glad that is settled, aren't you?
Well, perhaps you wanted more in regards to the question, "where did dire wolves come from?" Okay, we can do this. They evolved from the Leptocyon, a wiry, fox like creature that existed 24.8-10.3 million years ago. Of course things don't just begin or end there. Nothing in biology is ever really that simple, is it? In fact, I should point out here now that there wasn't just one dire wolf, there were a few sub species, and then there was Armbruster's wolf.
Armbruster's wolf is considered to be the direct ancestor, as indicated by gradual changes in its bone structure that took on identifiable dire wolf features. Although it gave rise to the dire wolf, Armbruster's wolf lost ground to its larger descendant, being steadily pushed towards the East coast, until the last surviving members died off in Florida during the latter half of the Ionian stage.
The overall morphology for Armbruster's wolf is quite similar to its descendant, save for the skull which is narrower. This may indicate that Armbruster's wolf had a less powerful bite force.
A Tolkienesque Warg, or Wharg
Dire Wolves Today
While dire wolves might be long gone, they are hardly forgotten. Oh we've got remains, and then we have so much Native American folklore involving wolves that we hardly know how to process it all. Oh I can hear you now saying, "No Sir!!! Sir!!! Native American mythology involves grey wolves not dire wolves!!!!!"
Well, let me remind you that the original Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to find a North America populated by both species, and one can't help but imagine that the initial wolf impressions upon Homo sapiens were more indelible in regards to the larger animal. The impressions have only sustained themselves to this day via the grey wolves.
The last vestiges of the dire wolves live today in our literature, fantasy, and music. Tolkien's whargs or wargs were and are elaborate dire wolves in fantasy, and besides that, they have come alive again in the more modern Tolkien evolved fantasy known as Game Of Thrones. Lets not be so hasty as to forget another old favorite involving the animals, the well loved and still often played Dungeons and Dragons board game, as it definitely utilized the species for its desired effect.
Thanks for reading.
© 2013 Wesman Todd Shaw
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 04, 2020:
Thanks MikaelRay. I've had the same problem with just about every long extinct species I've wanted to learn about.
Evolutionary biology is like an ongoing criminal investigation. You wind up finding out more things and having to go back and rethink things already stated. And at the same time some other law enforcement department is also investigating, and their notes don't match yours exactly.
Everyone has to be okay with the fact they could well be wrong about this or that, science is rarely settled, everything is continuously being discovered, or at the least regarding the distant past, concrete knowledge is sort of illusory.
MikaelRay on April 03, 2020:
There seems to be some dissent over the relative size of the Dire Wolf. While I found a site that has nearly your exact statement about Canis Dirus being larger than Armbruster's Wolf, I've also found others showing Canis Dirus being just slightly larger than Canis Lupus with Armbruster's Wolf being even larger.
Norma Lawrence from California on May 15, 2016:
Very good article and well written. I write about animals and I really enjoyed this article. I learned a lot about the Dire wolf.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 19, 2016:
Thanks Shawn, drpastorcarlotta, and Besarien! It's not absolutely clear that dire wolves ever hunted and ate humans - as wolves always prefer meals that have hooves on their feet, not that all said, a wolf will eat anything available. Speaking of genetic memory, there was an earlier still wolf-like animal who was larger still. This was known as the 'megafaunal wolf,' but the animal wasn't actually a wolf as we understand wolves today. Anyway, the megafaunal wolf was known to be a man killer and eater for a certainty, so there is likely where the genetic memory comes into play.
Besarien from South Florida on February 19, 2016:
You have educated me! I have been operating under the mistaken impression that dire wolves were the big bad wolves of fantasy. It never occurred to me that they were once chasing us down like bunnies. Maybe the grey wolf now suffers the dire wolves of our genetic memories?
Pastor Dr Carlotta Boles from BREAKOUT MINISTRIES, INC. KC on May 01, 2013:
I agree with shawn15, I have learnt something new today. Very informational. Thank you! Be Blessed!! I have been very busy counselibg but I am back! Come visit when yo havre a chance.
shawn15 on March 16, 2013:
Learn something new to day I had never heard of dire wolves very informative and interesting thanks keep up the good work.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on March 12, 2013:
Express10 - Thanks very much! There's all kinds of critters out there I'm clueless about, and even more that ain't out there no more...wish I could learn a bit about all of them.
H C Palting from East Coast on March 12, 2013:
I'd only recently heard of the dire wolf which is why I read your hub in search of more details. I thought the largest of the grey wolves were big! Your hub is very interesting and easy to read.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 24, 2013:
Jmillis2006 -thanks very much! I think these wolves faced the dire consequences of the winds of time :/
Jmillis2006 from North Carolina on February 22, 2013:
I love wolves, I had never heard of dire wolves before reading this. interesting hub.
Angela Blair from Central Texas on February 20, 2013:
Me again, Wes. Should you ever decide to adopt a wolf let us know -- we have excellent connections for purebred wolves/wolf pups and can put you in touch. Be very wary of wolf crosses -- sometime that turns out to not be in the best interest of either party. Best/Sis
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 20, 2013:
Thanks very much, Sis!
I've for years and years wished I could own such a creature friend, maybe someday I'll get to have four legged furry friends like that!
Angela Blair from Central Texas on February 19, 2013:
Wow, Wes -- you picked one of my favorite subjects "wolves" (of which my true love owns three) but I certainly had none of this information -- what a magnificent job you did with this one. I intend, in the near future, to impress him mightily with my wolf knowledge -- all thanks to you. By the way his three wolves probably all come from the grey wolves but each is over 100 pounds (one male/2 females) and are out of Canadian stock known as "goldens" and are NOT hybrids (sp?) -- they're 100% wolf. They do have a mixed grey and golden colored coat and the most magnificent, intelligent yellow eyes I've ever seen. They're also very gentle with "their" humans -- not so much with most other critters! Thanks so much for educating me -- this Hub was quite spectacular! Best/Sis
justom from 41042 on February 19, 2013:
Doesn't matter about the why (wolf subject) it's interesting, especially the way you talk about it. You just have a way with that. As for the being sick of you I'd have to be sick of myself because I always tell people you remind me of myself 30 years ago. That is NOT gonna' happen. I consider you a friend and that's always about more than the bullshit back and forth stuff!!!!
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 19, 2013:
Thanks Tom!!!! I've had the feeling you might be about sick of me a few times!
I've no idea, Tom, how I wind up on a subject like this wolf here...sure don't seem like the way to make a buck, but maybe it will in time...there just wasn't much on the subject out there that seemed much good to me.
justom from 41042 on February 19, 2013:
Todd, this is a killer well done hub about a wolf I didn't know even existed. I'm gonna' say what I've said many times you are a great writer. I know it seems like I fuck with you sometimes but it's only done to try to keep you open minded about all sides of an issue. I have much respect for your tenacity and ability to articulate your position, even if I don't always agree :-) I think that's how we all learn. Well done man!!!
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 19, 2013:
aravindb1982 -thanks very very much!
Aravind Balasubramanya from Puttaparthi, India on February 19, 2013:
That is quite some information presented very well and interestingly! :)
Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation... voted up and interesting.