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Dire wolf
Temporal range: Rancholabrean
Realistic and Updated Reconstruction of Aenocyon by JuliotheArtist
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Family: Canidae
Genus: Aenocyon
Merriam, 1918
Species: Aenocyon dirus
Binomial name
Aenocyon dirus
Leidy, 1858 (originally Canis dirus)
Subspecies
  • Aenocyon dirus dirus
    (Kurten 1984)
  • Aenocyon dirus guildayi
    (Kurten 1984)
Synonyms
  • Canis primaevus (Leidy, 1854)
  • Canis dirus (Leidy, 1858)
  • Canis indianensis (Leidy, 1869)
  • Canis mississippiensis (Allen, 1876)
  • Canis ayersi (Sellards 1916)
  • Aenocyon dirus nebrascensis (Frick, 1930) (nomen nudum)

The Dire Wolf, Aenocyon dirus, is an extinct carnivorous mammal of the genus Aenocyon and was most common in North America and South America from the Cenozoic Irvingtonian stage to the Rancholabrean stage of the Pleistocene epoch living 1.80 million years ago – 10,000 years ago, existing for approximately 1.79 million years. They lived alongside another megafauna such as the Short-faced bear, Mammoth, and Smilodon among others.

Aenocyon dirus meaning "Terrible Wolf" was one of the largest canines that ever lived on Earth, and also one of the largest representatives of the subfamily of canids (Specifically the subfamily of Caninae). The Dire Wolves were the size of the largest eurasian wolves (Canis lupus) and weighed, depending on gender and individual differences, 55 to 80 kilograms. Morphologically, Dire Wolves were similar to wolves, in anatomy, but these two species are not as closely related as it may seem at first glance. Homeland gray wolves were Eurasian, and the "Dire Wolf" is a type formed in North America. [1]

Generally, Dire Wolves were different from grey wolves. The molar teeth of the predator were more massive in comparison with those of modern wolves. In general, the skull of this species looks like a very large canine skull.

Being stronger, heavier and therefore more powerful, they could hunt very large prey, like the ice age megafauna, while lightly built gray wolves generally attacked the smaller prey. Dire Wolves were theorized as being social as gray wolves; based on the fossil recoveries, among the subfamilies of the wolf (Caninae). Aenocyon dirus disappeared with the extinction of the megafauna about 10 thousand years ago. They may even have had larger packs than modern wolves.

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves, New Genetic Clues Reveal. Dire wolves are iconic beasts. ... But a new study of Dire wolf genetics has startled paleontologists: it found that these animals were not wolves at all, but rather the last of a dog lineage that evolved in North America.

Taxonomy

From the 1850s, the fossil remains of extinct large wolves were being found in the United States, and it was not immediately clear that these all belonged to one species.

Description

The Dire wolf was once thought to be the largest species of the genus of Canis known to have existed, though genetic analysis in 2021 strongly suggests it belongs to its own genus; Aenocyon, showing that its similarities to true wolves were merely a case of convergent evolution.

Adaptation

Ecological factors such as habitat type, climate, prey specialization, and predatory competition have been shown to greatly influence gray wolf craniodental plasticity, which is an adaptation of the cranium and teeth due to the influences of the environment.

Range

Dire wolf remains have been found across a broad range of habitats including the plains, grasslands, and some forested mountain areas of North America, the arid savannah of South America, and the steppes of eastern Asia.

Extinction

During the Quaternary extinction event around 12,700 YBP, 90 genera of mammals weighing over 44 kilograms (97 lbs) became extinct.

Relationships

Life restoration of Dire Wolves (Aenocyon dirus) fighting off Gray Wolves in Southwestern North America

It was once thought that Aenocyon dirus was a relative of the gray wolf and sister species, but in 2021, evidence was shown that it was actually part of a now extinct clade native to the Americas that diverged after Cerdocyonina, but before the other members of Canina. Dire wolves and Gray wolves coexisted in North America for about 100,000 years.

The Dire Wolf was one of the abundant Pleistocene megafauna—a wide variety of very large mammals that lived during the Pleistocene. Approximately 10,000 years ago the Dire Wolf became extinct along with most another North American megafauna

The first specimen of a Dire Wolf was found by Francis A. Linck at the mouth of Pigeon Creek along the Ohio River near Evansville, Indiana

Morphology

Body mass and dimensions

The Dire Wolf was larger than the Gray Wolf, averaging about 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length and weighing between 50 kilograms (110 lbs) and more than 79 kilograms (174 lbs). Despite similarities to the Gray Wolf, there were significant differences between the two species. The legs of the Dire Wolf were proportionally shorter and sturdier than those of the Gray Wolf, and its braincase was smaller than that of a similarly sized gray wolf. Dire Wolves also had shorter fur than gray wolves.

A Dire Wolf skeleton found at the La Brea Tar Pits

Dentition

The Dire Wolf's teeth were similar to the Gray Wolf's, only slightly larger, pointing to a hyper carnivorous to mesocarnivorous activity. Paleontologist R.M. Nowak states the dietary characteristics are primarily carnivorous as well as partially omnivorous.

Many paleontologists have proposed that the Dire Wolf may have used its relatively large teeth to crush bone, an idea that is supported by the frequency of large amounts of wear on the crowns of their fossilized teeth. The upper carnassials had a much larger blade than that of the Gray Wolf, indicating greater slicing ability. It had a longer temporal fossa and broader zygomatic arches, indicating the presence of a large temporalis muscle capable of generating slightly more force than a Gray Wolf's.

However, other scientists have noted that the dorsoventral and labiolingual force profiles are indistinguishable from those of other canids such as coyotes and African wild dogs, indicating a similar diet. Dire wolf teeth lacked the craniodental adaptations of habitual bone crushers such as hyenas and borophagines. The dorsoventrally weak symphyseal region indicates it killed in a manner similar to its modern relatives, by delivering a series of shallow bites, strongly indicating pack hunting behavior. However, the incidence of broken post-carnassial molars is much higher than in fossil Gray Wolves, indicating that the species was probably chewing bones more often than the Gray Wolf.

The Dire Wolf pack from the documentary Prehistoric Predators

Fossil Record

The Dire Wolf is best known for its unusually high representation in the La Brea Tar Pits in California. Fossils from more than 3,600 Dire Wolves have been recovered from the tar pits, more than any other mammal species. This large number suggests that the Dire Wolf, like modern wolves and dogs, probably hunted in packs.

It also gives some insight into the pressures placed on the species near the end of its existence.

More about the Dire Wolf

The Dire Wolf, Aenocyon dirus, is one of those extinct megafauna mammals whose legend is way more intimidating than the way it actually lived. This true prehistoric dog looked somewhat like the modern Grey Wolf, except for the fact that it was stockier, with slightly shorter legs, and had a smaller brain as well. Interestingly, the fossils of Aenocyon dirus have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles, alongside the remains of another, a very dangerous predator called Smilodon, better known as the saber-toothed tiger, saber-toothed cat or just saber tooth. The two species probably had massive confrontations in the past.

Dire Wolves fight over a kill with a Smilodon guarding it

The Dire Wolf was indeed dangerous but a misunderstood animal, The Dire Wolf is both a scavenger of already-dead carcasses and both a hunter. Clearly, the Dire Wolf's teeth and powerful jaws were well-adapted to crushing bones, which would have extracted every last bit of nourishment from any rotting corpses it happened to come across or as an effective weapon used to inflict more damage when compared to the grey wolf on prey. The dire wolf was probably the largest true canine ever to have existed. It earned its 'dire' tag from comparisons with the modern grey wolf. A much heftier animal with larger teeth, its powerful build, and short legs indicate it might have been more of an ambush hunter and less of a long-distance runner than modern wolves. Despite being heavier, the dire wolf had a smaller brain than the grey wolf. Dire wolves were native to the Americas and thousands of their skeletons have been found in the La Brea tar pits. They became extinct between 16,000 and 10,000 years ago in different areas of America. Humans could see the last remnants of this species; given the rise of the legends about the animal, and even werewolf legends.

A display of some of the thousands of Dire Wolf skulls found in La Brea Tar Pits

The Dire Wolf probably lived in normal-sized groups. The massive skeleton remains in the La Brea Tar Pits probably showed that at the end of Ice Age, the competition for food was getting intense, and Dire Wolves formed massive hordes or travel in very large groups to protect their kills, scare off other predators or even for protection from other predators.

The Dire Wolf lived in both North and South America. Fossils have also been found in Northeast Asia, specifically near Harbin, China. The dire wolves here had migrated from Beringia and Alaska to settle Eastern Siberia, though the populations here were most likely smaller.

Many dire wolf fossils show signs of horrific injuries including completely broken forelegs and partially crushed skulls.‭ ‬Remarkably, however,‭ ‬many of these injuries actually healed with some of the fossils displaying evidence that the wolves in question lived for months and even years after the injury happening.‭ ‬Furthermore,‭ ‬many of these specimens were recovered from Rancho La Brea,‭ ‬leading to the fact that the dire wolves in question died as a result of being stuck in the tar and not of the injury.

Skeleton from the La Brea Tar Pits placed in running pose. Notice the baculum between the rear legs.

These types of injuries would almost certainly be the death of a solitary predator as they would be enough to prevent any animal from actively hunting.‭ ‬As a pack member,‭ ‬an injured dire wolf may have been able to drag itself to a kill,‭ ‬although it may have had to wait for the others to finish.‭ ‬Some have even speculated that the healthier wolves may have helped the injured by bringing them food while they recovered; although it is a speculation, it is possible; such behavior is observed in social predators.

In popular culture

  • The Dire Wolf appeared in the documentary series Prehistoric Predators.
  • The Dire Wolf appeared in the documentary Wild New World.

Gallery

  • See Dire Wolf/Gallery
  • (Note: The Dire Wolf was reclassified from Canis dirus to Aenocyon dirus in 2021. The template below was made before this date, and some information may not be up-to-date.)
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