The Dire Wolf, the Largest Wolf to Have Ever Lived
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.
What did dire wolves eat?
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.
A Drawing of Pleistocene era wild horses, a favorite source of food
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 may be gone - but they aren't forgotten
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.
They appear as even a song title in one of the most successful musical acts in the history of the USA, The Grateful Dead. And that is how I'll leave you.
Thanks for reading.