Canis lupus, the Timber Wolf or Gray Wolf, developed in northern Eurasia and probably crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge into North America. The two species, Canis lupus and C. dirus, coexisted for 400,000 years in North America.
In Our Region
Why did so many wolves die there? What may have happened is that prey animals ventured into the tar seeps, became entangled and started thrashing about because they were unable to extricate themselves. This in turn lured the wolves to make the same mistake, in pursuit of easy prey. Dire wolves are believed to have been the major predator species of the area around the Los Angeles Basin during the end of the Pleistocene.
Scientists make inferences about the diet of Dire Wolves based on fossil remains. They surmise that C. dirus may have been carrion feeders when they were unable to capture live prey. Their jaw structure and teeth were very massive and capable of crushing heavy bones. Many fossils show wear and tear on the teeth as well as fractures on other bones.
Along with mammoths and mastodons, the Dire Wolf died off between 10-16,000 years ago.
Why did these animals become extinct? Many hypotheses exist. The Dire Wolf skeleton is more stout than that of the Gray Wolf, suggesting an adaptation for power rather than speed. Most of its prey species were rather sedentary herbivorous animals that were not able to run very fast to escape predation. Scientists suspect that once those relatively slow-moving prey animals became extinct, the Dire Wolf may not have been able to hunt and capture swifter prey in order to survive.
The evolution of wolves is of special interest to us, because of their importance as the direct ancestor to the domesticated dog. We can trace many connections between wolves and wolf ancestors and dogs today. For example, the so-called "dew claw" of the dog first appeared in the Miocene; one wolf ancestor, Tomarctus, had a vestigial fifth claw on the hind legs.
Domesticated dogs had probably already begun living with humans around 14,000 years ago as revealed by scientific research at archaeological sites in Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico. This is also about the time that the Dire Wolves died out.
Text: Margaret Dykens and Lynett Gillette