Prehistoric Dog Pictures and Profiles

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Meet the Ancestral Dogs of the Cenozoic Era

hesperocyon
Hesperocyon. Wikimedia Commons

What did dogs look like before Gray Wolves were domesticated into modern poodles, schnauzers and golden retrievers? On the following slides, you'll find pictures and detailed profiles of a dozen prehistoric dogs of the Cenozoic Era, ranging from Aelurodon to Tomarctus.
 

02
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Aelurodon

aelurodon
Aelurodon. National Museum of Natural History

Name:

Aelurodon (Greek for "cat tooth"); pronounced ay-LORE-oh-don

Habitat:

Plains of North America

Historical Epoch:

Middle-late Miocene (16-9 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About five feet long and 50-75 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Dog-like build; strong jaws and teeth

 

For a prehistoric dog, Aelurodon (Greek for "cat tooth") has been given a somewhat bizarre name. This "bone-crushing" canid was an immediate descendant of Tomarctus, and was one of a number of hyena-like proto-dogs that roamed North America during the Miocene epoch. There's evidence that the larger species of Aelurodon may have hunted (or roamed) the grassy plains in packs, either taking down diseased or aged prey or swarming around already-dead carcasses and cracking the bones with their powerful jaws and teeth.

03
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Amphicyon

amphicyon
Amphicyon. Sergio Perez

True to its nickname, Amphicyon, the "bear dog," looked like a small bear with the head of a dog, and it probably pursued a bear-like lifestyle as well, feeding opportunistically on meat, carrion, fish, fruit and plants. However, it was more ancestral to dogs than to bears! See an in-depth profile of Amphicyon

04
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Borophagus

borophagus
Borophagus. Getty Images

Name:

Borophagus (Greek for "voracious eater"); pronounced BORE-oh-FAY-gus

Habitat:

Plains of North America

Historical Epoch:

Miocene-Pleistocene (12-2 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About five feet long and 100 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Wolf-like body; large head with powerful jaws

 

Borophagus was the last of a large, populous group of North American predatory mammals informally known as the "hyena dogs." Closely related to the slightly bigger Epicyon, this prehistoric dog (or "canid," as it should technically be called) made its living much like a modern hyena, scavenging already-dead carcasses rather than hunting live prey. Borophagus possessed an unusually big, muscular head with powerful jaws, and was probably the most accomplished bone-crusher of its canid line; its extinction two million years ago remains a bit of a mystery. (By the way, the prehistoric dog formerly known as Osteoborus has now been assigned as a species of Borophagus.)

05
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Cynodictis

cynodictis
Cynodictis. Wikimedia Commons

Until recently, it was widely believed that the late Eocene Cynodictis ("in-between dog) was the first true "canid," and thus lay at the root of 30 million years of dog evolution. Today, though, its relationship to modern dogs is subject to debate. See an in-depth profile of Cynodictis

06
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The Dire Wolf

dire wolf
The Dire Wolf. Daniel Anton

One of the apex predators of Pleistocene North America, the Dire Wolf competed for prey with the Saber-Toothed Tiger--as evidenced by the fact that thousands of specimens of these predators have been dredged up from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. See 10 Facts About the Dire Wolf

07
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Dusicyon

dusicyon
Dusicyon. Wikimedia Commons

Not only was Dusicyon the only prehistoric dog to live on the Falkland Islands (off the coast of Argentina), but it was the only mammal, period--meaning it preyed not on cats, rats and pigs, but birds, insects, and possibly even shellfish that washed up along the shore. See an in-depth profile of Dusicyon

08
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Epicyon

epicyon
Epicyon. Wikimedia Commons

The largest species of Epicyon weighed in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 pounds--as much as, or more than, a full-grown human--and possessed unusually powerful jaws and teeth, which made their heads look more like those of a big cat than a dog or wolf. See an in-depth profile of Epicyon

09
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Eucyon

eucyon
A fossil of Eucyon. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Eucyon (Greek for "original dog"); pronounced YOU-sigh-on

Habitat:

Plains of North America

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene (10-5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and 25 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Medium size; enlarged sinuses in snout

 

To simplify matters just a bit, the late Miocene Eucyon was the last link in the chain of prehistoric dog evolution before the appearance of Canis, the single genus that encompasses all modern dogs and wolves. The three-foot-long Eucyon was itself descended from an earlier, smaller genus of dog ancestor, Leptocyon, and it was distinguished by the size of its frontal sinuses, an adaptation linked to its diverse diet. It's believed that the first species of Canis evolved from a species of Eucyon in late Miocene North America, about 5 or 6 million years ago, though Eucyon itself persisted for another few million years.

10
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Hesperocyon

hesperocyon
Hesperocyon. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Hesperocyon (Greek for "western dog"); pronounced hess-per-OH-sie-on

Habitat:

Plains of North America

Historical Epoch:

Late Eocene (40-34 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and 10-20 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, sleek body; short legs; dog-like ears

 

Dogs were only domesticated about 10,000 years ago, but their evolutionary history goes back way further than that--as witness one of the earliest canines yet discovered, Hesperocyon, which lived in North America a whopping 40 million years ago, during the late Eocene epoch. As you might expect in such a distant ancestor, Hesperocyon didn't look much like any dog breed alive today, and was more reminiscent of a giant mongoose or weasel. However, this prehistoric dog did have the beginnings of specialized, dog-like, meat-shearing teeth, as well as noticeably dog-like ears. There's some speculation that Hesperocyon (and other late Eocene dogs) may have led a meerkat-like existence in underground burrows, but the evidence for this is somewhat lacking.

11
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Ictitherium

ictitherium
The skull of Ictitherium. American Museum of Natural History

Name:

Ictitherium (Greek for "marten mammal"); pronounced ICK-tih-THEE-ree-um

Habitat:

Plains of northern Africa and Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Middle Miocene-Early Pliocene (13-5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About four feet long and 25-50 pounds

Diet:

Omnivorous

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Jackal-like body; pointed snout

 

For all intents and purposes, Ictitherium marks the time when the first hyena-like carnivores ventured down from the trees and skittered across the vast plains of Africa and Eurasia (most of these early hunters lived in North America, but Ictitherium was a major exception). To judge by its teeth, the coyote-sized Ictitherium pursued an omnivorous diet (possibly including insects as well as small mammals and lizards), and the discovery of multiple remains jumbled together is a tantalizing hint that this predator may have hunted in packs. (By the way, Ictitherium wasn't technically a prehistoric dog, but more of a distant cousin.)

12
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Leptocyon

leptocyon
Leptocyon. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Leptocyon (Greek for "slender dog"); pronounced LEP-toe-SIGH-on

Habitat:

Woodlands of North America

Historical Epoch:

Oligocene-Miocene (34-10 million years ago))

Size and Weight:

About two feet long and five pounds

Diet:

Small animals and insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; fox-like appearance

 

Among the earliest ancestors of modern dogs, various species of Leptocyon roamed the plains and woodlands of North America for a whopping 25 million years, making this small, foxlike animal one of the most successful mammalian genera of all time. Unlike larger, "bone-crushing" canid cousins like Epicyon and Borophagus, Leptocyon subsisted on small, skittering, live prey, probably including lizards, birds, insects and other small mammals (and one can imagine that the larger, hyena-like prehistoric dogs of the Miocene epoch themselves weren't averse to making an occasional snack out of Leptocyon!)

13
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Tomarctus

tomarctus
The skull of Tomarctus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Tomarctus (Greek for "cut bear"); pronounced tah-MARK-tuss

Habitat:

Plains of North America

Historical Epoch:

Middle Miocene (15 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About four feet long and 30-40 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Hyena-like appearance; powerful jaws

 

Like another carnivore of the Cenozoic Era, Cynodictis, Tomarctus has long been the "go-to" mammal for folks who want to identify the first true prehistoric dog. Unfortunately, recent analysis has shown that Tomarctus wasn't any more ancestral to modern dogs (at least in a direct sense) than any of the other hyena-like mammals of the Eocene and Miocene epochs. We do know that this early "canid," which occupied a place on the evolutionary line that culminated in apex predators like Borophagus and Aelurodon, possessed powerful, bone-crushing jaws, and that it wasn't the only "hyena dog" of middle Miocene North America, but other than that much about Tomarctus remains a mystery.

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Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Dog Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo, Mar. 17, 2017, thoughtco.com/prehistoric-dog-pictures-and-profiles-4045031. Strauss, Bob. (2017, March 17). Prehistoric Dog Pictures and Profiles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-dog-pictures-and-profiles-4045031 Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Dog Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-dog-pictures-and-profiles-4045031 (accessed November 19, 2017).