Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Stacey. Stacey Wonders, “Why did the dire wolf become extinct and the gray wolf did not?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Stacey!

Here in Wonderopolis, we love to WONDER about ancient animals. We’ve learned all about dinosaurs. We even know which species has been around the longest. Today’s Wonder of the Day is all about a canine that roamed the Earth long ago. What are we talking about? The dire wolf, of course!

If you’re a fan of science fiction or fantasy novels, you may have already heard of the dire wolf. They’re featured in many stories, including the popular book “Den of Wolves.” But did you know these dire wolves are based on a real animal?

It’s true! The scientific name for dire wolves is Canis dirus. They walked the planet between 300,000 and 12,000 years ago. Where did these ancient dire wolves live? They were most common in North America. However, they also lived in northern South America.

The first dire wolf fossil was found by Francis Lincke in 1854. He uncovered the remains near Evansville, Indiana. Experts now know that these ancient canines lived in a variety of habitats. Thousands of years ago, dire wolves could be found in forests, mountains, marshes, and plains across much of the Western Hemisphere.

What were real dire wolves like? Let’s just say they lived up to their scientific name, which is Latin for “fearsome dog.” They were larger than today’s grey wolves, at about five feet long and up to 148 pounds. They also had much bigger teeth. In fact, their teeth were so large and sharp that scientists today believe that early dire wolves could crush the bones of their prey.

Speaking of prey, what did dire wolves eat? They preferred large mammals—experts think horses were their most common meal. Dire wolves also fed on sloths, mastodons, bison, and camels

Over 4,000 dire wolf fossils have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits. Based on what they’ve learned from this site, experts think the animals likely lived and hunted in packs, much as modern wolves do today. In fact, they believe the dire wolf may have even lived in cohabitation with other canines living at the time. This included coyotes, domestic dogs, grey foxes, and timber wolves.

Were dire wolves related to human's best friend? Distantly, yes. Some describe the dire wolf as modern dogs’ “great uncle.” They were most closely related to grey wolves, which came to North America from Asia. Today’s dogs are descended from these grey wolves.

Dire wolves have been extinct for about 12,000 years. However, some today hope to revive the species. An organization called the Dire Wolf Project has used selective breeding to produce dogs similar to dire wolves. Additionally, some scientists are considering using CRISPR to revive other extinct animals. Will they use the same process on dire wolves? Perhaps—only time will tell. 

What do you think about reviving dire wolves from extinction? What other ancient animals would you like to learn more about? The world has always been full of fascinating creatures!


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