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—and lives on in both popular lore and pop culture (as witness its cameo role on the HBO series Game of Thrones). 

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The Dire Wolf Was Remotely Ancestral to Modern Dogs

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The Dire Wolf (Daniel Anton).

Despite what you may have thought, the Dire Wolf occupied a side branch of the canine evolutionary tree; it wasn't directly ancestral to modern Dalmatians, Pomeranians and Labradoodles, but 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.

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The Dire Wolf Competed for Prey with the Saber-Tooth Tiger

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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 literally thousands of Dire Wolves—intermingled with the fossils of literally thousands of Saber-Tooth Tigers (genus Smilodon). Clearly, these two predators shared the same habitat, and hunted the same tasty assortment of prey animals. They may even have stalked each other when extreme conditions left them no choice.

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You Know Those Big Dogs on Game of Thrones? They're Dire Wolves

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A Dire Wolf, posed next to the Iron Throne (HBO).

If you're a fan of the HBO series Game of Thrones, you may have wondered about the provenance of those orphaned wolf cubs adopted by the ill-fated Stark children. They're Dire Wolves, which most inhabitants of the fictional continent of Westeros seem to still 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!

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The Dire Wolf Was a "Hypercarnivore"

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Wikimedia Commons.

Technically speaking, the Dire Wolf was "hypercarnivorous," which sounds a lot scarier than it actually is. What this mouthful of a word 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 modern-day dogs and tabby cats. Secondarily, hypercarnivores were distinguished by their large, slicing canine teeth, which evolved to cut through the flesh of prey like a knife through butter.

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The Dire Wolf was 25 Percent Bigger than the Biggest Modern Dogs

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The Bull Mastiff, one of the largest modern dog breeds (Wikimedia Commons).

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 (which presumably increased their attractiveness during mating season, not to mention their ability to bring home the prehistoric bacon).

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The Dire Wolf Was a Bone-Crushing Canid

Borophagus a typical "bone-crushing" canid (Getty Images).

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 gobbling up 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.

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The Dire Wolf Has Been Known by Various Names

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Wikimedia Commons.

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 1980's that all these species and genera were re-attributed, for good, back to the easier-to-pronounce Canis dirus.

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The Dire Wolf Is the Subject of a Grateful Dead Song

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By Chris Stone http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjstone707/ [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If you're of a certain age (or if your parents or grandparents are especially nostalgic), you may be 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, casting some doubt on this song's scientific accuracy.

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

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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 was 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. 

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It May Be Possible to De-Extinct the Dire Wolf

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Dire Wolf skulls on display at the George C. Page Museum (Wikimedia Commons).

Under the program known as de-extinction, it may (emphasis on the "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 Grey Wolf forebears; just imagine the ecological havoc that could be wrought by a genetically engineered pack of Dire Wolves! (Are you listening, Hollywood?)

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About the Dire Wolf." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-dire-wolf-1093336. Strauss, Bob. (2017, October 18). 10 Facts About the Dire Wolf. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-dire-wolf-1093336 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About the Dire Wolf." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-dire-wolf-1093336 (accessed April 26, 2018).