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Extinct Dire Wolf (Canus dirus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Extinct Dire Wolf (Canus dirus)

How Do We Know This?

Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals are
classified and grouped according to their relationships to each other and to their ancestors.
Some fossils yield DNA which helps scientists determine these animals' similarity to living animals.

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Scientific name: Canis from the Latin for "dog"; dirus from the Latin for "fearful" or "awful"
  • Two extinct dire wolf subspecies probably exist based on clear size differences and earlier appearance of eastern subspecies. (Anyonge & Roman 2006)
    • Canis dirus guildayi (smaller individuals, western U.S.)
    • Canis dirus dirus (larger individuals, eastern U.S.) 

Evolutionary History

(Wang et al 2004; Lindblad-Toh et al 2005; Tedford et al 2009)

  • The modern Canid family originated in North America diverging into many species beginning about 10 million years ago (Miocene) from ancestral dogs. (Lindblad-Toh et al 2005)
    • Various canids in multiple migrations traveled to Asia, Europe, and Africa
    • A jackal-sized canid, Eucyon (Miocene), is known originally from North America and later from Africa, Asia and Europe.
  • Large wolf-like canids evolved from African canid ancestors.
    • African jackals are most primitive members of the modern wolf-like canids
    • Wolves, dholes, and African wild dogs came from African and Eurasian ancestor
    • The genus Canis appears in North America between 11 and 4 million years ago (late Miocene to early Pliocene). (Tedford et al 2009)
  • Between 3 million and 300,000 years ago (late Pliocene to Pleistocene), the genus Canis extended its range considerably
    • Large wolf-like species of Canis evolved first in Eurasia.
      • Wolves belonged to a circum-arctic fauna that invaded North America several times
      • Canis armbrusteri fossils date to 1.8 million years ago (Early Pleistocene) in southwestern U.S., later in eastern U.S.
      • Canis armbrusteri gave rise to dire wolves.
    • Dire wolves (Canis dirus) appeared first in midcontinental U.S.
      • Dire wolves existed in North and northern South America between 300,000 and 12 ,000 years ago
      • An eastern subspecies appeared first and was larger.
      • A western subspecies was smaller and evolved slightly more recently.
    • Modern gray wolves (Canis lupus) appeared south of the ice sheets by about 100,000 years ago in mid latitude U.S. and co-existed with dire wolves.
    • By 12,000 years ago dire wolves were extinct.
    • Gray wolves live throughout the northern hemisphere today.
      • But eliminated from most of continental U.S., Europe, S.E. China and Indochina. (Wilson & Reeder 2005)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Canidae (dogs, coyotes, foxes, jackals, wolves; many extinct genera)

Genus: Canis (Linnaeus, 1758)

Species: Canis dirus (Leidy, 1858) - dire wolf (extinct)

Subspecies: Canis dirus guildayi (extinct)

Subspecies: Canis dirus dirus (extinct)

Page Citations

ITIS (2010)
Anyonge & Roman (2006)
Lindblad-Toh et al. (2005)
McKenna & Bell (1997)
Tedford et al. (2009)
Wilson & Reeder (2005)
Wang et al. (2004)

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