Wolves have always endeared us. Their mysterious personalities have captured our imaginations for thousands of years. Thus, they play a big role in myths, folk tales, and fairytales throughout Europe and the Americas. During the Pleistocene, a larger, more peculiar wolf than today’s gray wolf strutted across North America. These large extinct canines, known as dire wolves, used to rule North America. What happened to these fantastic beasts?
The dire wolf and the gray wolf co-existed for thousands of years. Although dire wolves and gray wolves look very similar, they are not related. Recent genetic testing shows that these two species have separate lineages. Surprisingly, the last time these two shared a common ancestor was around 5.7 million years ago. Despite not being close relatives, the dire wolf and the gray wolf look very similar. Since these two species shared a similar lifestyle, they developed similar adaptations. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution.
What were some similarities and differences between these two canines? Both creatures lived in North America during the same time and were around the same height. They both stood around three feet tall at the shoulder. Dire wolves, however, had a heavier, more muscular body. Weighing 130 to 150 pounds, they were around 25% heavier than gray wolves. Additionally, they had much larger heads for their body size. These large heads contained sharp teeth and powerful jaws. It is theorized that they also had a stronger bite than gray wolves, which they needed to hunt larger prey. Some paleontologists believe that they could also crack open bones like hyenas.
The muscular build, powerful jaws, and sharp teeth of dire wolves made them menacing predators. They probably hunted in packs like modern wolves, a theory that is supported by the sheer number of dire wolf fossils found at sites like the La Brea Tar Pits in California. Pack-hunting, as well as their large size, allowed dire wolves to hunt large prey, such as horses and bison. In contrast, the smaller gray wolves would have had to stick to smaller prey. While this worked for a while, this was eventually their downfall. Dire wolves may have also scavenged kills from other predators, like saber-toothed cats, to supplement their diet when prey was scarce.
There is proof that dire wolves at one point occupied White Sands. During the ice age, before the dunes formed, a large lake called Lake Otero attracted animals to its green lush shores. This lake attracted large prey that the dire wolf would have hunted. Prey such as giant ground sloths, camelids, and bison. Fossilized footprints of the dire wolf were found at the shore of this ancient lake. Scientists believe that when the megafauna started dying because of climate change, the dire wolf had trouble competing with the gray wolf when it came to catching smaller prey. Thus, the species went extinct. However, this magnificent animal will continue to live on in our imaginations when we reminisce on the Ice Age.
Anyonge, William and Chris Roman. “New Body Mass Estimates for Canis dirus, the Extinct Pleistocene Dire Wolf.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26, no. 1 (2006): 209-212.
Lange, Ian M. ice age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy, and the Bizarre. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002.
Perri, A.R., Mitchell, K.J., Mouton, A. et al. Dire wolves were the last of an ancient New World canid lineage. Nature591, 87–91 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-03082-x