Dire Wolf Appearance

 

Researchers only feel certain about the bone and body structure of the Dire Wolf's appearance as they uncover thousands of Dire Wolf skeletons encased in our Earth's own historical museum.  These complete and well-preserved skeletons can tell us definitively about the size, weight and overall shape of the Dire Wolf but cannot determine ear height, typical coat coloring, length and texture of fur, or eye color.  What we know regarding those physical traits we can only speculate based upon a thorough examination of what scientists know about carnivore survival through mother nature's natural selection.  However, through Isotopic Analysis we can learn about the Dire Wolf's eating habits which directly affects how the Dire Wolf can use its massive body to effectively hunt and thus acquire the build needed to maintain such a diet.  By also analyzing the diverse body structure of domesticated dog breeds, we can speculate with some degree of certainty about other habits that may have had an effect on the Dire Wolf's appearance compared to its close cousin, the Gray Wolf. 



Bone and Skeletal Structure

The Dire Wolf stood just over 2 feet tall (between 25 to 30 inches) and weighed on average 110 pounds with a maximum weight of 150 pounds (although some sources indicate from 125 to 175 lbs.).  The larger bone set of the Dire Wolf compared to Gray Wolves living today would have created a much broader, stockier and denser animal.  The feet of the Dire Wolf were larger with a notable splay enough to carry the heavy frame.  The Dire Wolf's head is most significantly unique in that it was much broader, larger in size, and heavier than the typical Gray Wolf.  Despite this increase in skull size, the Dire Wolf shows a smaller brain cavity.  The length of the Dire Wolf from head to tail was around five to six feet.  


                                                  Two coat color theories in the Dire Wolf         Photo by: Sergiodlarosa

Coat Color                   Scientists have developed two theories for coat color in the Dire Wolf depending on where the Dire Wolf may have originated.  During the Ice Age, the watery passage between the northern Siberian coastline and Alaska's closest shores was completely covered in a thick layer of ice.  This would have allowed migrating animals free passage across the Bering Land Bridge.  Researchers maintain that the Gray Wolf crossed this icy passageway arriving after the Dire Wolf already dominated the North American landscape.  It is entirely possible that the Dire Wolf also took this convenient route earlier and set up residence long before the Gray Wolf emerged onto the scene.  


Another intriguing theory exists, however.  Since the Dire Wolf population dominated the Gray Wolf 10 to 1, we could come to the conclusion that the Dire Wolf emerged from a completely different location.  Some researchers speculate that the Dire Wolf came from South America, migrating north until reaching the chilly tundra surroundings of North America.  As Dire Wolf skeletons have also been found in parts of South America, this is entirely possible.


South American Maned Wolf   Photo Credit: Sage Ross  

These two migration theories pose an intriguing mystery and two coat color hypotheses begin to emerge.  It is generally believed that the Dire Wolf was the direct descendent of the Armbruster's Wolf (Canis armbrusteri) while the modern Gray Wolf is descended from the Hare-eating Wolf (Canis lepophagus).  Thus, the Dire Wolf is a completely different species from the Gray Wolf, much like the coyote or jackal.  The diversity of these two wolf species would allow for a greater variety of coat texture and coloring.  With the possibility that the Dire Wolf migrated north from South America, this prehistoric mammal could have possessed more of the reverse colored look of the South American Maned Wolf.  The legs of the Dire Wolf would then have been darker than the body, which would have had a more subtle banded coloration.  On the other hand, if the Dire Wolf traveled along the Bering Land Bridge as did the Gray Wolf afterwards, then the Dire Wolf could have more closely resembled the Gray Wolf in color.  



Dire Wolf and Gray Wolf Comparisons

 

Dire Wolf

Gray Wolf

Upper Canine Teeth Length

 3.175 cm

 2.619 cm

 Skull Length

 29.5 cm 

 25.1 cm

 Jaw Width

 Wider

 Narrower

 Head/Body Length

 4.1 ft. (125 cm)

 3.6 ft. (110 cm)

 Height at Shoulders

2.6 ft. (80 cm)

 2.6-2.8 ft. (80-85 cm)

 Tail Length

 2 ft. (63 cm)

 1.5 ft. (45 cm)

 Weight

110 - 175 lbs.

 75 - 125 lbs. 

 Maximum prey size 

 660 - 1317.8 lbs

 ?

 Bite Strength

 129% stronger

 


   

                Gray Wolf Skull                                    Dire Wolf Skull


Other Interesting Facts:

1.The difference in size between male and female Dire Wolf bone and teeth structure was minimal with little dimorphism.  This means that the female Dire Wolf did not have specifically feminine traits and both male and female Dire Wolf's had similar teeth size and bone structure.  In modern animals, the amount of sexual dimorphism correlates with that animal's breeding system.  When a males' canine teeth are much larger, males compete strongly for females and the system may be polygamous and one male may then breed with several females as the dominant figure in the pack.  When both sexes have similar canine teeth, as is the case with the Dire Wolf, typically there is a lower level of competition between males and a more pair-bonded breeding system is seen.  So this leads researchers to believe that the Dire Wolf pack was monogamous in structure with one male typically mating with one female.  


2. Dire Wolves primarily ate wild horses and bison with an occasional feast on mastodon and giant ground sloths.  The Dire Wolf did not, however, opt to eat smaller animals, which may have been a factor in its ultimate extinction.


3. Dire Wolves may have regularly hunted in packs of 30 or more.  This is sometimes seen in Gray wolves today, but it is much more rare.


4. The Dire Wolf's rear teeth were adapted for tearing, not chewing. This suggests that the Dire Wolf did not chew their meal, but tore off large chunks of flesh, swallowing it whole. 

 


Anatomy is destiny.


 

REFERENCES

* Prehistoric Predators. [DVD ASIN-B00120TJFE]. National Geographic. Retrieved 2011-05-21.

* "Canis dirus 1854". Academy of Natural Sciences. Retrieved 2011-05-22.

* Biggest Wolf On Record Shot Dead: report. NineMSN. Retrieved 2011-05-27.

* Dire Wolf Fact Sheet. San Diego Zoo. Retrieved 2011-05-27.

* Morphological change in Quaternary mammals of North America. Robert Allen Martin and Anthony D. Barnosky. Retrieved 2011-05-27.

* Modern Wolf's Distant Cousin: The Dire Wolf. International Wolf Center. Retrieved 2011-05-27.

* Mammals of the Soviet Union. V.G. Heptner and N.P. Naumov. Retrieved 2011-05-27.