If you've been a fan of the fantasy genre for any amount of time, chances are you're at least familiar with the dire wolf. Dire wolves frequently show up in fantasy stories, such as Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, and Prophecy of Swords by M. H. Bonham. But you may be wondering if dire wolves were real or not. Dire wolves actually did exist in the past. They're now extinct, but they capture our imaginations even now.
The first thing you may be wondering is when the dire wolf actually existed. These wolves died out about 9000 years ago, and they lived in the Late Pleistocene to the Early Holocene, which is from 125,000 years ago to 9000 years ago. They lived in North America and died out during or not long after the American megafaunal extinction event.
Dire wolves get their name from the Latin classification of canis dirus, meaning "fearsome dog." These wolves were top predators along with saber tooth cats during the Late Pleistocene. They were bigger than modern wolves and much stouter, built for attacking and killing megafauna such as mastodons, bison, horses, camels, and other Pleistocene animals. Unlike fantasy depictions, they did not have saber teeth and were not as large as horses.
Dire wolves were the largest canine predators ever in existence. Unlike the Game of Thrones pony sized wolves, these wolves averaged about the same height and length or a little bigger as some of the biggest wolves in now existence. The Northwestern Wolf and the Yukon Wolf, which stand at more than three feet tall at the shoulder and almost six feet in length, are only slightly smaller than the biggest of the dire wolves. Dire wolves were generally more massive than modern day wolves, on average around 150 lbs.
Since dire wolves are extinct, you may wonder if modern day dogs and wolves evolved from dire wolves. Although it's an exciting concept, it's currently believed that the dire wolf is only a distant cousin of today's modern wolf, canis lupus, and the wolf's descendants, canis lupus familiaris or the dog. The dire wolf was not a direct ancestor.
Dire wolves were plentiful in America. So abundant that there were at least two subspecies of dire wolves in existence: Canis dirus dirus and Canis dirus guildayi. Canis dirus dirus weighed about 150 lbs on average and Canis dirus guildayi was slightly smaller at 132 lbs on average. Canis dirus dirus lived east of the Continental Divide and had comparatively shorter teeth and longer legs. Canis dirus guildayi had longer teeth and shorter legs and lived primarily in California and Mexico.
Dire wolves had to deal with holding onto some seriously big and bad megafauna. In order to do this, they had to have teeth that could grasp and hold onto their prey. It's been calculated that the dire wolf had a bite that was 129 percent more powerful than today's modern wolves.
Although mastodons, giant ground sloths, camels, and other species were on the menu, dire wolves usually ate bison or horses. About half their diet was bison and the other half was horses, but given they were most likely opportunistic, they probably would eat other animals, if they presented themselves. Dire wolves most likely hunted in packs to kill their prey.
If you live in Southern California, you're smack dab in dire wolf central. The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits has more than 400 dire wolf skulls. If you can't get there, most museums of natural history that have fossils will have a complete dire wolf skeleton.
The La Brea Tar Pits was a natural predator trap that lured unsuspecting dire wolves and saber-toothed cats to their deaths. Herbivores, probably looking for a drink of water, would become trapped in the tar that is estimated to be up to 75 feet deep in spots. The thrashing animal would alert hungry predators, who would then go into the tar pits to get an easy meal. But the predators, in turn, got trapped. About 90 percent of the animals found at the site are predators.
Dire wolves went extinct when the megafauna went extinct. Perhaps without enough food to support them, they were unable to survive in what had to be a changing environment. Some experts believe that climate change was a factor, and other experts believe that the extinction might have been due to the arrival of a new top predator: humans.
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