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The dire state of wolf knowledge ;)

April 1, 2010

How dire wolves may have looked, in two renderings.

Yet another interesting one from Retrieverman, from earlier today, which I spotted while trying to find one of the ones linked to above: Dire wolf remains discovered in West Virginia, which does not appear to be an April Fools thing, AFAICT turns out to be an excellent parody. 😉

Consider me well-baited (and quickly fed sorting though with Google results!).

Most of my points still stand. If anything, even more so, since it’s such a plausible bit of parody.

To quote from Wikipedia (links omitted):

Although it was closely related to the Gray Wolf and other sister species, Canis dirus 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.[1] 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 most fossils recovered have been from La Brea Tar Pits in California.

Back to Retrieverman’s post:

However, there was on [sic] problem with these remains being those of a dire wolf.

They were radiocarbon dated to the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century…

Ken Olsen, the paleontologist leading the multidisciplinary investigation into the Gilmer County dire wolf, says that these findings are earth shattering:

“Apparently dire wolves were able to survive in North America much longer than we thought. That means that European settlers and explorers could have come in contact with this truly monstrous wolf.”…

There are so many descriptions of giant wolves on the North American frontier. Perhaps that is why we have legends like the Shunka Warakin, the Waheela, and the giant Ontario white wolf. Maybe they were actually dire wolves.

Olsen says the reason why no other recent dire wolves have been discovered is that the wolves probably were not that common.

OK, Europeans may never have seen them at all, their descendents hadn’t been looking very hard for more recent evidence (Everybody Knows they won’t find it), and probably haven’t examined a lot of “historical period” (i.e., post-European Contact) wolf bones to see if they might be from dire wolves (because they couldn’t be). Yet they “probably were not that common.” How they determined this based on the level of data they admit to having, I have no idea.

For that matter, I would be surprised if they never interbred with other large canids in the Americas, including the grey and red wolves*. Maybe not on a huge scale–or maybe so, who knows?!–but the idea that they couldn’t have contributed genes to the wolf populations we (barely) see today seems based more on assumptions than anything else. I would like to see DNA comparisons between Eurasian grey wolves before they apparently started coming to North America, modern Eurasian grey wolves from different areas, modern grey wolves from different areas of North America, dire wolves across geographical regions and time periods, Eastern wolves across different time periods, coyotes across different time periods, and red wolves across different time periods–at the very least–before forming much in the way of conclusions there. (I got repetitive for a reason.)

Besides the expected Eurocentricity, this is very interesting. If a ginormous wolf is running around in the forest, and no European sees it, does it really exist?!

It also adds support to the other (largely neglected/’splained away) evidence of megafauna surviving longer than credited in North America. Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Red Earth, White Lies offers a decent introduction to this–along with the number of oral histories describing humans reacting with the expected fear and avoidance when they ran across these huge, dangerous animals! (Wouldn’t your impulse be to try to stay away from them?!) The book looks at a number of too-common politically convenient lapses in critical thinking, where the Americas and science collide.

Hint: if it screws up your preferred timeline and makes your preferred neat explanations break down, ignoring it is not the best course of action. Not if you are doing science.

Another nail in the dehumanizing (and politicized in obvious ways) projection of the Overkill Hypothesis. With the various wolves and coyotes (not to mention other large animals) in more recent times, we see again who was motivated to wipe them out.

Why the dire wolf went extinct without any mention without any historical mention of them is a good question.

[Olsen continues:] “Perhaps settlers killed dire wolves without realizing that they represented a unique species. It is suggested that coyotes, which were once endemic to the East, were killed without any understanding that they were unique from gray wolves.”

Olsen also speculates that canine disease could have wiped out the wolf population before Europeans settled this part of West Virginia. [Sort of like Channel Island foxes, who also started out as pets? – U.]

“The earliest settlers came to this part of West Virgina in the period between the French and Indian War and the Revolution. It is unlikely that this dire wolf ever saw a European or that a European ever saw it. It is possible that the dire wolves went extinct before Europeans crossed the Blue Ridge. Maybe dire wolves were susceptible to diseases that were carried by European dogs. Something similar happened to the dogs of the Native Americans. They simply had no immunity to the pathogens that European dogs carried.”

Maybe they didn’t know what they were looking at, being plopped down on a new continent–with far more biodiversity than they were used to back home–and all. They may not have even recognized that these wolves were different species, as Olsen suggests. This happened a lot, as one would expect. “See wolflike animal, kill!”

From’s very interesting page on wolf origins:

The dire wolf was not quite like any animal we have today. It was similar in overall size and mass to a large modern gray wolf.

(A popular misconception is that dire wolf dwarfed the modern day grey wolf)

It was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and weighed about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) on average. The dire wolf looked fairly similar to the modern gray wolf; however, there were several important differences. The dire wolf had a larger, broader head and shorter, more sturdy legs than its modern relative. The teeth of dire wolf much larger and more massive than those of the gray wolf. The braincase of the dire wolf is also smaller than that of a similarly-sized gray wolf. The fact that the lower part of the legs of the dire wolf are proportionally shorter than those of the gray wolf, indicates that the dire wolf was probably not a good a runner as the gray wolf.

“Yep, it’s a wolf, all right! Kill!!!”


Some authorities believe that canids originated in North America and then spread to Asia and South America, while others ascribe that a small type of wolf crossed into siberia from alaska, where it eventually developed into the larger, present-day grey wolf. The grey wolf then migrated to North America, where it populated what is now Canada and the United States, except for the southeastern section of the latter country. that area was populated by the smaller red wolf(C. rufus). Still Others believe that the dog family originated in North America, migrated to Asia, and then returned…

The Dire Wolf,(Canis Dirus), larger and heavier than the gray wolf, evolved earlier and the two co existed in North America for about 400,000 years. As prey became extinct around 16,000 years ago due to climatic change, the dire wolf gradually became extinct itself. Around 7,000 years ago the gray wolf became the prime canine predator in North America

Yeah, it’s not very neat. And wolves are well-known animals who have gotten rather a lot of study, as these things go.


* That’s kinda what animals–including canids–do. They don’t even mention red wolves, mostly what you got in West Virginia AFAICT. Nor Eastern Wolves, from further north.

More weirdness from Wikipedia:

The gray wolf migrated into North America from the Old World, probably via the Bering land bridge, around 400,000 years ago. However, they did not become widespread until 12,000 years ago, when the native American megafauna began dying out. It is thought by certain experts that the wolf’s Eurasian origin could account for its relative inability to modify its behaviour in light of human encroachment, compared to native American predators like black bears, cougars and coyotes which were under greater predation pressure from larger, now extinct predators.[68] The gray wolf then coexisted with the Dire Wolf (Canis dirus). Although more heavily built and possessing a stronger bite, the dire wolf’s dentition was less adept at crushing bones than the grey wolf was.[22] The Dire Wolf ranged from southern Canada to South America until about 8,000 years ago when climate changes are thought to have caused it to become extinct. After that the gray wolf is thought to have become the prime canine predator in North America.

I don’t know where to begin with this cobbling together of sources, nor even if they’d make any more sense in context.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2010 5:34 pm

    Thank you for catching my typo.

    But I have a confession to make:

    This is an April Fool’s joke.

    I haven’t revealed it on my blog yet, but I will tomorrow.

    I need to do something on the other Urocyon.

    • urocyon permalink
      April 1, 2010 5:36 pm

      Ha, good one!

      I am going to leave this up, pointing it out as parody.

  2. September 16, 2011 7:43 pm

    I learned alot by reading your article. Keep up with good posts.
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