We can safely assume that you watched Game of Thrones and you saw the dire wolf there. Remember Ghost? Did you really think that it was a figment of imagination of George R. R. Martin?

You Know Nothing, John Snow!

Dire wolf was very much real and it was fierce carnivore that once terrorized North America. In this article on dire wolf facts, we are going to learn about this creature in details.

Just a note: Martin’s imagination was not 100% accurate.

Ready to learn? Great! Let’s begin without a second’s delay.

Dire Wolf Facts: Scientific Classification

The scientific classification for the dire wolf is provided below in a tabular format.

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Canidae
Genus Canis
Species C. dirus
Binomial Name Canis dirus

Now that we have the classification in place, let us start with the dire wolf facts.

Dire Wolf Facts: Small Tidbits for You (1-5)

1. Dire wolf is extinct. It no longer exists on this planet.

2. The binomial name Canis dirus actually means ‘fearsome dog.’

3. Dire wolf belonged to the same family in which the gray wolves and even the common modern dogs of today belong to.

4. Smilodon fatalis – the extinct sabre-toothed cat was the direct competitor of dire wolf.

5. The dire wolf became extinct during the Quaternary extinction event.

Dire Wolf Facts: The First Discovery (6-10)

6. In the United States, people started finding the fossil remains of extinct large wolves during the 1850s. However, it was not really clear whether all the skeletal remains belonged to the same species or not.

7. It was in the middle of the year 1854 when the fossil specimen which was associated with dire wolf, was first found.

8. The fossil was recovered from Ohio River bed near Indiana’s Evansville.

9. The fossil specimen was made of only of a jawbone along with cheek-teeth and it belong to Francis A. Linck – a collector from Evansville.

10. Joseph Granville Norwood – a geologist – obtained the specimen from Linck.

Dire Wolf Facts: Joseph Leidy and Naming (11-15)

11. Norwood later handed over the specimen to Joseph Leidy – a paleontologist.

12. It was Leidy who went on to determine that the specimen belonged to some extinct species of wolf.

13. Leidy reported his finding with the name Canis primaevus in the year 1854.

14. In 1857, Leidy, while exploring Nebraska’s Niobrara River Valley, came across yet other fossilized vertebrae of an extinct Canis species. He reported his findings in 1858 under the name C. dirus.

15. Leidy later found that the name he used in 1854 (Canis primaevus) was already used earlier by Brian Houghton Hodgson – a British naturalist – for dhole. Leidy thus changed the name to Canis indianensis in 1869.

Dire Wolf Facts: More Fossils, More Names (16-20)

16. Joel Asaph Allen – a zoologist – discovered several other remains of what he named as Canis mississippiensis. He discovered and named them in 1876.

17. Joel however associated his findings with C. dirus and Canis indianensis, both of which were named by Leidy.

18. The specimen of Canis mississippiensis, C. dirus and Canis indianensis had very limited number of fossilized bones recovered for each one of them. The end result was that Joel Asaph Allen thought it to be a prudent decision to leave each one of them under their provisional listing until more bones could be found.

19. Then came John Campbell Merriam – a known paleotologist – who accidentally found a goldmine of fossils. He stumbled upon the Rancho La Brea tar pits where he started finding many, literally numerous bone fragments.

20. From 1908 to 1912, Campbell Merriam had recovered large number of fossilized bones, sufficient enough to recreate a nearly complete skeleton structure.

Dire Wolf Facts: Naming the Dire Wolf (21-25)

21. Once a nearly complete skeleton structure was complete, it became easy to formally recognize the bones and even the specimen that was previously found and categorized as C. dirus.

22. Now, it was time for giving a formal name. There is a rule in nomenclature, which states that the name of a particular species should be the oldest name that was ever applied to it.

23. By the aforementioned rule, the earliest name that was assigned was the C. dirus, which was used back in 1858 by Leidy.

24. Campbell Merriam had the notion that C. indianenis was nothing more than a synonym of C. dirus.

25. Merriam’s notion was backed by another paleontologist in the year 1915. This other paleontologist was Edward Troxell.

Dire Wolf Facts: Proposal of a Different Genus (26-30)

26. John Campbell Merriam continued to study the fossils, and eventually in 1918, came up with a proposal that the C. dirus be placed under a new genus.

27. The genus that Merriam suggested was Aenocyon. So, C. dirus would actually become Aenocyon dirus.

28. There was yet another person named Sellards, who in 1916 proposed that C. dirus should actually be called Canis ayersi.

29. The popular vote, however, went against all of them and no one else agreed that the extinct wolf be placed under a new genus which is separate from the genus Canis.

30. So, the unanimous choice was that the species be called C. dirus and that it be placed under the genus Canis. That’s precisely how we know it today.

Dire Wolf Facts: Ernest Lundelius, Ronald M. Nowak and Björn Kurten (31-35)

31. In 1972, Ernest Lundelius – a famous paleontologist – recognized the names Aenocyon dirus (Merriam 1918) and Canis ayersi (Sellards 1916) as synonyms of C. dirus.

32. Then came Ronald M. Nowak, according to whom, the following taxa were all declared synonyms of C. dirus in 1979:

Canis primaevus (By Leidy 1854)

Canis indianensis (By Leidy 1869)

Canis mississippiensis (By Allen 1876)

Canis ayersi (By Sellards 1916)

Aenocyon dirus (by Merriam 1918)

Aenocyon dirus nebrascensis (by Frick 1930)

33. In 1984 came Björn Kurten who ended up proposing two different subspecies of the Canis dirus based on the geographic variation that was found among the dire wolves.

34. The two subspecies that Kurten named were Canis dirus guildayi (for the specimens that were collected from Mexico and California) and Canis dirus dirus for all the specimens that were recovered from North American Continental Divide.

35. Canis dirus guildayi displayed longer teeth and shorter limbs while the Canis dirus dirus exhibited shorter teeth and longer limbs.

Dire Wolf Facts: Description of Dire Wolf

Dire Wolf Facts: Modern Day Wolves and Dire Wolves Were Similarly Sized (36-40)

36. In the entire Canis genus, dire wolf is (was) the largest known species to have ever lived.

37. However, when it is said that the dire wolf was the largest known species, do not think of it to be of behemoth size. The dire wolf was pretty similar to that of today’s North American wolves in terms of size.

38. As a matter of fact, some of the largest known North American wolves that are found today have a body length of 180 centimeters or 69 inches while having a shoulder height of 97 centimeters or 38 inches.

39. Some dire wolf fossil specimen that have been found in the Rancho La Brea tar pit are smaller while some are larger than the largest known North American wolves that live today.

40. If we are to generalize, they were slightly bigger than the modern-day gray wolves.

Dire Wolf Facts: Difference Between Modern-Day Wolves and Dire Wolves (41-45)

41. Despite being very similarly sized as the modern-day wolves (or the gray wolves as we call them), the dire wolves displayed significant differences.

42. For instance, the dire wolves had shorter limbs, but broader skull sizes compared to the gray wolves. The body size was nearly similar though.

43. The average body length of dire wolf was at 5 feet or 152.4 centimeters. The average body length of gray wolf on the other hand is nearly the same.

44. The skull of the dire wolf was, however, quite large as opposed to the gray wolf or the northern wolf. A dire wolf’s skull could reach the length of 310 millimeters or 12 inches or longer. For a gray wolf skull size is between 9.1 inches and 11.0 inches.

45. The head of the dire wolf was also broader compared to the gray wolf. In general, the dire wolf had a broader palate, broader cheek bones (scientifically known as zygomatic arches) and broader frontal region.

46. Even the vertebral column of the dire wolf was similar to that of the gray wolf with same number of vertebrae.

47. Dire wolves had, however, more massive teeth compared to the gray wolves.

48. Compared to the gray wolf, the dire wolf had a relatively smaller braincase. This clearly indicates that the gray wolves beat the dire wolves in terms of being smart.

49. The dire wolves used to have shorter legs compared to the gray wolves, especially the lower parts of the legs. This indicated that the dire wolves were not great runners.

50. In terms of weight, the dire wolves outweighed the gray wolves. They had an average weight of anywhere between 150 and 200 pounds, making them 25% heavier than the largest gray wolves of today and 25% heavier than the largest dog breed alive today (the American Mastiff).

Dire Wolf Facts: The Tidbits (51-55)

51. The dire wolf was a hypercarnivore. While it is a mouthful of a term, it simply means that the dire wolf had a diet comprising of 70% meat – at least.

52. In case you didn’t know, the most of the mammalian carnivores that lived during the Cenozoic Era (such as the sabre-tooth cat) were all hypercarnivorous. As a matter of fact, the modern-day cats and dogs are also hypercarnivores.

53. Hypercarnivores like the dire wolf are identified by their large slicing canine teeth. Such teeth have evolved to easily cut through the flesh of the animal they feed on.

54. While the dire wolf was equipped with flesh slicing canines that it used to slice through the flesh of prehistoric pachyderm or prehistoric horse, the creature was also a bone-crushing canid.

55. How do we know that? Scientists say that they identified large amounts of wear on the teeth of the dire wolf bones they found. The frequent occurrences of such wear indicate that the dire wolf used to crush bones of their preys to draw maximum nutritional value by eating the bone marrow.

Dire Wolf Facts: More Tidbits (56-60)

56. The dire wolf definitely dwarfed the gray wolf when it came to the overall bite force. The bite force of the dire wolf was 129% of the bite force of today’s gray wolf.

57. Dire wolves had a special liking towards horses when it came to choosing prey. This is revealed by the tooth analysis of the dire wolf fossils. However, they also preyed on giant ground sloths, ancient camels, mastodons and bison of their times.

58. The dire wolf fossil specimen analyses have revealed that the dire wolves that lived some 12,000 years before present had fewer broken teeth compared to the dire wolves that lived some 15,000 years before present (YBP).

59. The reason is that 15,000 YBP, the number of carnivore animals that the dire wolf competed with was high, and hence, they had to often resort to scavenging carcass and bone-gnawing to get maximum nutritional value.

60. By 12,000 YBP, as more and more carnivore predators gradually started disappearing from the face of Earth, the dire wolves were left behind with more kills and of course meatier corpses. So, they did not have to worry much about bone-gnawing, leaving them with healthier chompers.

Dire Wolf Facts: Even More Trivia (61-65)

61. The dire wolf coexisted with the Smilodon fatalis or the sabre-tooth cat. Just to be clear, the Smilodon fatalis was indeed a huge feline, but it was not really a tiger.

62. Scientists have used Isotopic Analysis process to determine the eating patterns of the dire wolves. The analysis revealed that half of the total diet of the dire wolves was made of horse. The other half was made of bison, mastodons, sloths etc.

63. Scientists are left perplexed by the fact that the dire wolves actually did not go after easier targets like deer and elk of those times. The theory that explains this is that the dire wolves lived in large packs and going after big kills would easily satisfy the food requirement of the entire pack.

64. Definitely, going after large prey did come with consequences and scientists have identified formidable bone injuries. Such were the injuries that the dire wolf that sustained such injury couldn’t really sustain on its own.

65. Scientists even found signs of healing in such injuries, leading them to hypothesize that the dire wolves actually took care of their pack members when they were gravely injured. So, the conclusion that the scientists come to is that the dire wolves had some kind of social structure.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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