Extinct wolf (Canis dirus) that existed during the Pleistocene Epoch (1.8 million–10,000 years ago), probably the most common mammalian species found preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits. It differed from the modern wolf in being larger and having a more massive skull, a smaller brain (and probably less intelligence), and relatively light limbs. The species was considerably widespread; skeletal remains have been found in Florida and the Mississippi valley in the U.S., as well as in the Valley of Mexico.
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The Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) is an extinct carnivorous mammal of the genus Canis, and was most common in North America and South America during the Pleistocene. Although it was closely related to the Gray Wolf, it was not the direct ancestor of any species known today. Unlike the Gray Wolf, which is of Eurasian origin, the Dire Wolf evolved on the North American continent, along with the Coyote. The Dire Wolf co-existed with the Gray Wolf 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 other 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 in 1854, but the vast majority of fossils recovered have been from the La Brea Tar Pits in California.
Over the next nine million years, extensive development and diversification of the North American wolves took place, and by the Mid-Pleistocene (800,000 years ago) Canis ambrusteri appeared and spread across North and South America. It soon disappeared from North America, but probably continued to survive in South America to become the ancestor of the Dire Wolf. (However there is some evidence to suggest that the Dire Wolf may have arisen from other small South American wolves.)
During the Late Pleistocene (300,000 years ago) the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) crossed into North America on the Bering Strait land bridge. By 100,000 years ago the Dire Wolf also appeared in North America (probably from South America).
Starting about 16,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of the most recent Ice Age and the arrival of humans in North America, most of the large mammals upon which the Dire Wolf depended for prey began to die out (possibly as a result of climate and/or human-induced changes). Slower than the other wolf species on the continent at the time, primarily the Gray Wolf and Red Wolf, it could not hunt the swifter species that remained and was forced to subsist on scavenging. By 10,000 years ago, the large mammals and the Dire Wolf were extinct, although some fossils found in Arkansas suggest that they may have lived as a relict population in the Ozark mountains as recently as 4,000 years ago.
The Dire Wolf is best known for its unusually high representation in the La Brea Tar Pits in California. In total, fossils from more than 3,600 individual 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.
Dr. Norwood's letters to Dr. Leidy, as well as the type specimen itself, are preserved at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, although one of the letters indicates that the specimen was to be returned to Linck's family, as Linck himself died in August 1854.