STL Science Center

STL Science Center

03 April 2015

Critters Fantastic

©Charles R. Knight
One of the most fearsome of all the mammalian carnivores of the Pleistocene was the pack hunting Dire Wolf (Canis dirus). Lately this blog has been on a bit of a mammalian run, and there is nothing wrong with that, but this is the first mammalian carnivore that we have had the pleasure to discuss. Canis dirus is not the direct ancestor of extant canids but most likely acted in a very similar manner with a pack mentality that extant wolves (C. lupus) and some populations of coyotes (C. latrans) exhibit. The genetic lineages of these giant canids, separated from their relatives somewhat recently, were also related, but very distantly, to the foxes of the world. It is pretty amazing to think that a wolf the size of a Dire Wolf ever existed or that it could have been even minutely related to foxes, some of which are under 10lbs currently. The skeletal size of Dire Wolves appears to be similar to Gray Wolves, but estimations of mass based on the robusticity of their bones state that Dire Wolves may have weighed up to 25% more than their sister taxa; this would mean a weight range between 50 and 79 kg (110 and 174 lbs). It is of importance to note that the largest extant Gray Wolves can weigh as much as 54 kg (120 lbs), though these are typically relegated to the "untamed wilderness" of northern North America and Asia. Possibly due to the fact that man and wolf coexisted, they have been portrayed as evil vicious and enormous wolves that have an insatiable lust for violence and carnage. Possessing a bite and teeth that appear to have been well adapted to breaking the skin of even the megafauna of their day (mammoths and mastodons), there may well be reason that the human herd memory of these large canids is filled with outright terror.

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