10 Facts About the Dire Wolf

The largest ancestral canine that ever lived, the dire wolf (Canis dirus) terrorized the plains of North America until the end of the last Ice Age, ten thousand years ago. It lives on in both popular lore and pop culture (as evidenced by its cameo role on the HBO series "Game of Thrones"). 

01
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The Dire Wolf Was Remotely Ancestral to Modern Dogs

dire wolf
The Dire Wolf.

Daniel Anton

Despite a common misconception, the dire wolf occupies a side branch of the canine evolutionary tree. It isn't directly ancestral to modern Dalmatians, Pomeranians, and Labradoodles, but is more of a great uncle a few times removed. Specifically, the dire wolf was a close relative of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), the species from which all modern dogs descend. The gray wolf crossed the Siberian land bridge from Asia about 250,000 years ago, by which time the dire wolf was already well entrenched in North America.

02
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The Dire Wolf Competed for Prey With the Saber-Tooth Tiger

Dire wolf
A Dire Wolf (left) snarling at a Saber-Tooth Tiger.

Wikimedia Commons

The La Brea Tar Pits, in downtown Los Angeles, have yielded the skeletons of thousands of dire wolves—intermingled with the fossils of thousands of saber-tooth tigers (genus Smilodon). Clearly, these two predators shared the same habitat, and hunted the same assortment of prey animals. They may even have stalked each other when extreme conditions left them no choice.

03
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The Big Dogs on "Game of Thrones" Are Dire Wolves

Game of Thrones
A Dire Wolf, posed next to the Iron Throne.

HBO

Fans of the HBO series "Game of Thrones," are familiar with the orphaned wolf cubs adopted by the ill-fated Stark children. They're dire wolves, which most inhabitants of the fictional continent of Westeros believe are mythical, but have been rarely sighted (and even domesticated) in the North. Sadly, in terms of their survival, the Starks' dire wolves haven't fared much better than the Starks themselves as the series has progressed.

04
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The Dire Wolf Was a "Hypercarnivore"

Dire wolf

Wikimedia Commons

Technically speaking, the dire wolf was "hypercarnivorous," which sounds a lot more frightening than it actually is. What this means is that the dire wolf's diet consisted of at least 70 percent meat. By this standard, most mammalian predators of the Cenozoic Era (including the saber-tooth tiger) were hypercarnivores and so are domestic modern-day dogs and cats. Secondarily, hypercarnivores are distinguished by their large, slicing canine teeth, which evolved to cut easily through the flesh of prey.

05
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The Dire Wolf Was 25 Percent Bigger Than the Biggest Modern Dogs

Bull mastiff
Despite their size, they tend to be gentle giants.

Charles Cormany/Getty Images

The dire wolf was a formidable predator, measuring almost five feet from head to tail and weighing in the vicinity of 150 to 200 pounds—about 25 percent bigger than the biggest dog alive today (the American mastiff), and 25 percent heavier than the largest gray wolves. Male dire wolves were about the same size as females, but some of them were equipped with larger and more menacing fangs. This presumably increased their attractiveness during mating season and improved their ability to kill their prey.

06
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The Dire Wolf Was a Bone-Crushing Canid

The dire wolf's teeth didn't only slice through the flesh of the average prehistoric horse or Pleistocene pachyderm; paleontologists speculate that Canis dirus may also have been a "bone-crushing" canid, extracting the maximum nutritional value from its meals by crushing its prey's bones and eating the marrow inside. This would put the dire wolf closer to the mainstream of canine evolution than some other Pleistocene fauna; consider, for example, the famous bone-crushing dog ancestor Borophagus.

07
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The Dire Wolf Has Been Known by Various Names

The dire wolf has a complicated taxonomic history, not an unusual fate for an animal discovered in the 19th century, when less was known about prehistoric animals than is known today. Originally named by the American paleontologist Joseph Leidy, in 1858, Canis dirus has variously been known as Canis ayersi, Canis indianensis, and Canis mississippiensis, and was once designated as another genus altogether, Aenocyon. It was only in the 1980s that all these species and genera were re-attributed, for good, back to the easier-to-pronounce Canis dirus.

08
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The Dire Wolf Is the Subject of a Grateful Dead Song

grateful dead

Chris Stone/Flickr

Fans of the Grateful Dead are likely familiar with a track from the Grateful Dead's landmark 1970 album "Workingman's Dead." In "Dire Wolf," Jerry Garcia croons "don't murder me, I beg of you, please don't murder me" to a dire wolf ("600 pounds of sin") that has somehow sneaked in through his living-room window. He and the wolf then sit down for a game of cards, which casts some doubt on this song's scientific accuracy.

09
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The Dire Wolf Went Extinct at the End of the Last Ice Age

dire wolf

 Wikimedia Commons

Like most other megafauna mammals of the late Pleistocene epoch, the dire wolf vanished shortly after the last Ice Age, most likely doomed by the disappearance of its accustomed prey (which either starved to death for lack of vegetation and/or were hunted to extinction by early humans). It's even possible that some brave Homo sapiens targeted the dire wolf directly, to eliminate an existential threat, though this scenario unfolds more often in Hollywood movies than it does in reputable research papers. 

10
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It May Be Possible to De-Extinct the Dire Wolf

Under the program known as de-extinction, it may be possible to bring the dire wolf back to life, presumably by combining intact scraps of Canis dirus DNA recovered from museum specimens with the genome of modern dogs. More likely, though, scientists would first choose to "de-breed" modern canines into something closely approximating their gray wolf forebears.