North American origin on right, South American origin on left

Name Meaning:  Dire Wolf

Geologic Era:  Pleistocene

Location Discovered:  Marion County, Florida

Estimated Range:  North and South America

Size:  1.5 meters long, .85 meters tall at shoulders

Extinction Date:  10,000 years ago

Dire Wolves are the most common species found in the La Brea tar pits in California.  Between the tar pits and other areas, thousands of individuals have been recovered.  Both of our specimens are from Florida sinkholes.  The tooth is a carnassial, from the front half of the jaw.  The crown is mostly intact, but much of one root is missing.  This is one of the few pieces not on permanent display in the museum, as I had it wrapped in silver to make a pendant.  I do wear it quite frequently, and it is one of my favorite necklaces.  The other bone is from the foot, specifically a finger bone.  It too is in a good state of preservation, with only a few small dings and pits present.  

Dire Wolves closely resembled the modern grey wolf in both size and appearance.  The major differences lie in build.  Dire wolves were stockier and more muscular than modern wolves.  There is evidence that the two species did coexist for many thousands of years.  They probably avoided direct competition by feeding on different prey.  The smaller, lighter grey wolves would have preferred deer and other smaller herbivores, where the larger, more powerful Dire Wolf probably preferred bison and horses.  Dire Wolves did possess the jaw and neck muscles needed to crack through bone and tear muscle of these larger prey items.  Other carnivores coexisting with Dire Wolves would have included Smilodon and Arctodus (Giant Short Faced Bear).

There is significant evidence that Dire Wolves hunted in packs, as modern wolves do.  These packs may have been significantly larger than those of modern wolves.  Aside from the numerous fossils found together, many Dire Wolf skulls show evidence of healed bite marks, especially in the facial area.  Among modern pack animals, biting at the face is a way to reinforce the dominance of the pack leader.  Even modern dogs behave this way.  Few of these injuries appear to have been fatal, as the bone had regrown and healed.  Dominance battles usually are not meant to be killing matches, though they can and often do leave significant scarring.  

Other injuries seen in Dire Wolves include broken forelimbs, which also show evidence of healing.  Such survival of serious injuries would not have been possible if food was not being provided.  In this case, it appears that an animal not able to hunt was still able to eat, which was probably provided by pack members.  

Dire wolf compared to modern wolf

Though the skeletons may look similar in size, Dire Wolves actually were 25% heavier than a comparably sized Gray Wolf.  The skull of Dire Wolves is also heavier in appearance.  The coloration of Dire Wolves is up for debate, but one can assume they had similar coat colors and patterns to modern Gray Wolves.  The illustration below shows two possible coats, depending on a North or South American origin.  Most paleontologists favor a North American origin, as Dire Wolves appeared earlier in North America and are overall more common in the North American continent.  

Dire Wolves went extinct along with the other Pleistocene megafauna, as they depended on these larger animals for food.  Once the larger species died out, only the smaller, faster prey was left.  This left ample food for Grey Wolves, but little to nothing for Dire Wolves.  Those that remained would have relied on scavenging, until they too went extinct.

Image Credits:

Skeletons:  “Canis lupus & dirus” by Mariomassone & Momotarou2012 – Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canis_lupus_%26_dirus.jpg#/media/File:Canis_lupus_%26_dirus.jpg

Life Restoration:  “Canis dirus Sergiodlarosa” by Sergiodlarosa. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canis_dirus_Sergiodlarosa.jpg#/media/File:Canis_dirus_Sergiodlarosa.jpg