Dire Wolf Facts for Kids & Adults, With Pictures & In-Depth Information.

Dire wolf facts, pictures & information. Made famous by the ‘Game of Thrones’ books and TV show, the dire wolf was in fact a real species. This large, intelligent predator was closely related to the grey wolf. It lived in North and South America during the Ice Age.

Let's find out more about the (non-fictional) dire wolf...

Dire Wolf Facts At A Glance

  • Scientific name: Canis dirus
  • Type of Animal: Mammal
  • Animal Family: Canidae (the dog family)
  • Fossils Found: North America and northern South America
  • Time Period: 125,000 to 9,440 years ago (Late Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary Period)
  • Head-Body Length: 125 cm (4.1 ft.)
  • Shoulder Height: 80 cm (2.6 ft.)
  • Weight: 34 to 68 kg (75 to 150 lb.)
  • Conservation Status: Extinct

Meet The Dire Wolf: Introduction

The dire wolf is an extinct American carnivore. It lived during the late Pleistocene epoch from around 125,000 to 9,440 years ago.

The species was closely related to, and for a time even coexisted with, the gray wolf (Canis lupus).

The discovery of the first dire wolf specimen occurred in 1854, in Indiana, USA. Two subspecies, Canis dirus dirus and Canis dirus guildayi, have since been identified from fossil finds.

The dire wolf's scientific name, Canis dirus, means ‘fearsome dog’.

What Did The Dire Wolf Look Like?

dire wolf portrait

Dire wolves are the largest known members of the genus Canis (the genus that includes all wolves, coyotes and jackals). Only the very largest of today's wolves would equal the size of the average dire wolf.

The dire wolf resembled the Interior Alaskan wolf (Canis lupus pambasileus) in both body shape and proportions. (The Interior Alaskan wolf, otherwise known as the Yukon wolf, is a living subspecies of grey wolf.)

The dire wolf was more robust than its living counterpart, and its skull was broader and heavier.

Of the 2 dire wolf subspecies, Canis dirus dirus was larger and heavier than Canis dirus guildayi. The former also had longer limbs, although its teeth were shorter.

The size of dire wolves also appears to have changed over time. Recent specimens are smaller in size and have shorter snouts than older specimens. There was little difference in size between male and female dire wolves.

Biologists believe that the coat of the dire wolf was similar in color to that of modern wolves.

Where Was The Dire Wolf Found?

The dire wolf occurred in both North and South America. Its range stretched from southern Canada to southern Bolivia.

Canis dirus dirus appears in the fossil records first. The larger subspecies occurred mainly in the eastern United States.

Canis dirus guildayi appears to have evolved more recently. It occurred mainly in the western United States.

Scientists believe that the dire wolf spread to South America via the Andean corridor. The species was rarer in South America than it was in North America.

Dire wolf fossils have been found at just 3 sites in South America (in Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia). All specimens found in the continent are less than 17,000 years old.

Few fossils have been found north of the 42°N latitude. This is probably due to limitations imposed by temperature, habitat and/or availability of prey.

The site of the largest number of dire wolf fossil finds is La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California. Over 4,000 specimens have been found here, making the species the most commonly-found large mammal found at the site.

Dire Wolf Habitat

The dire wolf seems to have been a generalist, able to live in a wide range of habitats.

North American dire wolf fossils occurred in areas likely to have been open grasslands and plains, as well as in forested mountain areas.

Mexican fossils have been found in areas that were once either grassland, deciduous forest, tropical marsh or thorn-scrub.

In South America, the species appears to have inhabited arid savanna.

Fossil evidence indicates that the dire wolf most commonly inhabited open lowlands. Here it would have lived alongside the large herbivores upon which it preyed. The species also occurred at higher elevations of up to 2,255 m (7,400 ft.).

Behavior & Lifestyle

dire wolves in snowy landscape
The dire wolf probably lived in packs led by an alpha pair.

The large number of dire wolves found at La Brea tar pits suggests that the animal lived and hunted in packs. The small size difference between male and female wolves indicates that they formed monogamous pairs.

It is likely that the social structure of dire wolves resembled that of modern gray wolves. This means that they would have lived in packs consisting of a mated pair and their offspring, and occasionally other related individuals.

What Did Dire Wolves Eat?

dire wolf attacking woolly mammoth
Dire wolves attacking a young woolly mammoth.

The dire wolf was a ‘hypercarnivore’ (i.e. its diet consisted of at least 70% meat). Its skull and teeth were adapted to hunting large prey.

The dire wolf had several adaptations for taking down powerful prey, including a bite that was around 29% stronger than that of the modern gray wolf. The species' teeth are also thought to have been better at shearing and slicing. The canines were more rounded and had greater bending strength.

The size of the typical prey animal hunted by the dire wolf likely ranged from 300 to 600 kg (660 to 1,320 lb.).

Although the dire wolf didn't specialize in any particular prey, it appears to have preferred feeding on ruminants such as the bison. If these weren't readily available, the wolf would have taken other large herbivores, such as horses, ground sloths, mastodons and camels.

The dire wolf probably supplemented its diet with smaller prey animals and carrion when food was scarce.

Evidence suggests that the dire wolf competed with Smilodon and the American lion for the same prey species.

A shift in dire wolf feeding habits seems to have taken place around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. At this point tooth breakage began to occur more frequently. This suggests that the wolf was chewing on bones more often, possibly due to increased competition for prey.

Why Did The Dire Wolf Become Extinct?

The dire wolf became extinct alongside most other Pleistocene megafauna after the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago.

Possible reasons for the species' extinction include: the disappearance of the megaherbivores on which the dire wolf preyed; climate change; and competition with other predators (including human hunters).

The most recent verified dire wolf remains were found in a cave in Boone County, Missouri. They date to 9,440 years before present.

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