Dire Wolves

Artistic impression of Dire wolf consuming animal remains near the shore of the lake.

NPS Photo

Photograph of 2 fossilized Dire wolf footprints with small tree in the background.
Two eroding fossilized dire wolf footprints.

NPS Photo

Large wolves have always played an important role in the stories we tell. They have become symbols of strength and loyalty, as villains and even evil. Many thousands of years ago, large fearsome wolves walked the earth. During the last ice age, dire wolves became one of most common of the large meat eaters in North America.

The dire wolf was not alone in the ice age world. The modern gray wolf and dire wolf coexisted during the ice age. Gray wolves evolved in Eurasia and later crossed over to North America. However, dire wolves evolved in North America. As a result, both species lived in North America around the same time and were even about the same size. Dire wolves, however, had a heavier, more muscular body. They stood about as tall as a small human child stands but were as heavy as an adult human female. With their muscular body, powerful jaws, and sharp teeth, Dire wolves were fearsome predators. They hunted in packs like modern wolves. Pack hunting, as well as their large size, allowed dire wolves to hunt large animals.

Dire wolves lived here at White Sands. During the ice age, before the dunes formed, a large lake called Lake Otero attracted animals to its green lush shores. Dire wolves were using these ancient beaches as hunting grounds since prey and water were plentiful. Dire wolves hunted and scavenged their way across both of the American continents. California’s Rancho La Brea Tarpits contains one of the largest collections of dire wolves in the Americas. Within this large range, dire wolves lived in several habitats, such as forests, mountains, and grasslands.

Today the lakebed of ancient Lake Otero contains fossil footprints of dire wolves. Dated to more than 18,000 years ago using ancient seeds found underneath one of the many footprints. Unfortunately, the footprints are rapidly eroding. Scientist today are working to save records of the dire wolf and all other fossil footprints found. As we uncover new footprints, we open a window to a world much different from ours.


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.
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.

Last updated: January 24, 2020

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