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Canis dirus - Dire wolf
Range:  North America
Size:  125 - 175 lb (57 - 79 kg)

The Dire wolf is the largest canid known to have ever existed.  It lived in North America during the Pleistocene Epoch.

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Shown at right is an extremely well preserved canine tooth of the dire wolf (Canis dirus).  It is of Late Pleistocene age (between 10-130 thousand years old) and was found in the Withlacoochee River, Florida.  Remains of the dire wolf are widespread in North America, but the greatest concentrations are found in California and Florida.  This is because those particular states had some the most appropriate conditions for the preservation of Pleistocene animal remains.
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dire wolf canine tooth - Florida - Image  C. Campbell
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A dire wolf canine tooth.
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dire wolf skull - Rancho La Brea deposit, California - Image  C. Campbell
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The skull of a dire wolf.
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A very well preserved, complete dire wolf skull from the Late Pleistocene Rancho La Brea deposit of Los Angeles, California.  The skull is quite dark because it has absorbed tar during its burial in an asphalt flow.  The teeth have remained light because they are much less porous and accumulate comparitively little tar.

This fine skull is one of many that have been excavated from the natural asphalt pits in Hancock Park, Los Angeles.

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These are foot bones from a dire wolf, found in riverine deposits in Florida.
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dire wolf toe bones - Florida - Image  C. Campbell
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Dire wolf metapodials (foot bones)
Pleistocene (10,000-1 million years old)
Suwanee River, Suwanee Co., Florida

 
dire wolf skeletons - New Mexico Museum of Natural History
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Dire wolf skeletons on exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.
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The dire wolf was somewhat larger than the modern grey wolf (Canis lupus).  When the skulls of the two species are placed side by side, the difference is readily apparent.  One of the most noticeable distinctions is in the size of the teeth - those of the dire wolf are more massive.
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Another difference is in the structure of the legs, as those of the dire wolf are shorter in relation to the body.  The dire wolf evolved during the Pleistocene, and became extinct by about 16,000 years ago.  One of the best places to learn about the dire wolf is at the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, in Los Angeles, CA.  It was built for the purpose of housing and displaying the fossils of the famous Rancho La Brea tar pits.  The remains of some 2,000 dire wolves have been excavated from the deposit's zones of ancient, hardened asphalt.  Because so many individuals have been found here, the dire wolf is one of the most thoroughly studied of all fossil canids.  The tar pits, which came into existence some 40,000 years ago, acted as a natural trap for many kinds of animals, from enormous mammoths to tiny insects.  Crude oil emerging from deep within the Earth's crust gradually thickened at the surface via a series of asphalt flows.  Because water does not mix well with tar, rain often accumulated on the surface of these flows, giving them the appearance of being ordinary water holes.
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This illusion proved fatal for many thousands of animals.  Dire wolves and other predators such as the saber toothed cat Smilodon were attracted to the trapped prey animals in the pits.  In their attempts to capture the trapped animals, predators often became hopelessly mired in the tar themselves.  In the photo at right is the museum's spectacular display of nearly 450 dire wolf skulls.  Also on exhibit at the museum are complete dire wolf skeletons.
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dire wolf skulls - George C. Page Museum
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Dire wolf skulls
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Rancho La Brea tar pits
Rancho La Brea tar pits

 
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The Rancho La Brea tar pits are still very much active today.  In summer, the sun's heat makes the tar especially viscous, and small animals such as squirrels and birds are occasionally trapped, perhaps to become the fossils of the future.  The two photos above were taken during my visit to the site in 1997.  They are of the Lake pit, the largest pit in the series today.  In the photo at right, a large bubble of natural gas explodes on the pit's surface.  The Museum of La Brea Discoveries is located on the grounds of the La Brea tar pits deposit, in Hancock Park.  The tar pits are one of the world's great palaeontological treasures, and have been designated a National Natural Landmark by the US National Park Service.
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DIRE WOLF LINKS:
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Museum of La Brea Discoveries- Fossils of the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits.
16,000 Years Ago - Ice Ages exhibit at the Illinois State Museum (dire wolf section)

 
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Photographs and other illustrations (where indicated) are © C. Campbell's NATURAL WORLDS.
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