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Canis dirus

(KAN-iss DIE-russ)

Name means: Dire Wolf


Range: Quaternary (Pleistocene-Holocene, 2 MYA to 10,000 YA) from North America, Venezuela, and Peru

Size estimate: 2’ 9” at the shoulder, 150-240 lbs

Discovery: Joseph Leidy, 1858

Classification: mammalia, carnivora, caniformia, canidae


Though it weighs in as the largest member of the genus Canis, the dire wolf wouldn’t have looked much bigger than the average grey wolf in life. It would have looked stockier instead. Dire wolves were built to take on more powerful prey than other wolves. The force of a dire wolf bite exceeded that of the average wolf by about 25%. However, their shorter legs and stocky frame made them slower. Their brains were also smaller, and while brain size doesn’t determine differences in intelligence, they might not have relied as much on complex behavior as other wolves. Dire wolves coexisted with grey wolves, red wolves, and coyotes for thousands of years. The extinction of large, powerful herbivores may have led to their extinction, although they seem to have outlasted some of their competitors by a few thousand years. Those competitors included the saber-tooth cat, the American lion, and possibly the short-faced bear.


Dire wolves roamed across most of the New World, but the most famous site to find their remains is located in California. The Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles have preserved tens of thousands of individual dire wolves—more than any other species. These wolves attacked animals trapped in the tar and got stuck themselves. Dire wolf fossils occur in many other places, often turning up in caves where they may have fallen or even kept dens.

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