The genus Canis includes wolves, coyotes, jackals, and domestic dogs. In the midwestern U.S. at least three members of the genus are found in sites that date from the last Ice Age. These three members are the dire wolf (Canis dirus), the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and the coyote (Canis latrans). One additional species, the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), was almost certainly also present at the very end of the Pleistocene.

The grey wolves and coyotes of the last Ice Age were probably very similar in look and behaviour to their modern relatives.

The dire wolf was not quite like any animal we have today. It was similar in overall size and mass to a large modern grey wolf. This means it was about 5 feet long and weighed about 110 pounds on average. The dire wolf looked fairly similar to the modern grey wolf but there were several important differences. The dire wolf had a larger, broader head and shorter, more sturdy legs than its modern counterpart and its teeth were much larger and more massive. The braincase of the dire wolf is also smaller than that of a similarly-sized grey wolf.

The fact that the lower part of the legs of the dire wolf are proportionally shorter than those of the gray wolf, indicates that the dire wolf was probably not a good a runner as the gray wolf.

Many paleontologists think that the dire wolf may have used its relatively large, massive teeth to crush bone and this idea is supported by the fact that dire wolf teeth frequently have large amounts of wear on their crowns. Several people have suggested that dire wolves may have made their living in similar ways to the modern hyenas. Wolves and coyotes are relatively common large carnivores found in Ice Age sites, in fact several thousand dire wolves have been found in the asphalt pits at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles. The first specimen of a dire wolf was found at near Evansville, Indiana.

The genus Canis underwent a mixed fate at the end of the Pleistocene. The grey wolf and coyote survived the extinction that occurred approximately 10,000 years ago but the dire wolf did not. It is possible that the dire wolf depended on scavanging the remains of the large herbivores of the last Ice Age. The extinction of these herbivores may have then led to the extinction of the dire wolf. Scientists do not know if this is the case, but they continue to search for the reason that many kinds of mammals became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

The evolution of these three species of canids is interesting stuff. Paleontologists think that, although all three of the species were found in the same area at the same time, each comes from a different evolutionary lineage within the genus Canis. That is, none of these three species is the direct ancestor of either of the other two species.

In Dungeons and Dragons, the Dire Wolf is one of four kinds of wolf commonly described. The others are the basic wolf, the worg or warg, and the winter wolf. When dire wolves originally appeared in basic D&D, I assumed they were there to stand in for the wargs in the same way that halflings had to stand in for hobbits after TSR's happy little run-in with the Tolkien estate. However, when I moved up to AD&D, I found the above four species. Dire wolves are the big, stupid ones. Wargs are much smarter, and are the ones that are the allies, rather than the pets, of orcs and goblins. Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition introduces a wider range of dire animals including dire rats, dire lions, and the dreaded dire weasels.

In the game Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, the Dire Wolf is a 100-ton 'mech used by the Clans (mostly Clan Wolf). It's one of the easiest to recognize at a distance, and it has very large legs, which were easy to target with lasers. I used to play the game in an online league, and I recall taking out a Dire Wolf with a puny 20-ton 'mech equipped with only flamethrowers and a big, fast engine. Dire Wolf 'mechs were very good looking, but all show and no go.

Dire Wolf
The Grateful Dead
Words by Robert Hunter
     In the timbers of Fennario
     the wolves are running round
     The winter was so hard and cold
     froze ten feet neath the ground

     Don't murder me
     I beg of you don't murder me
     Please 
     don't murder me

     I sat down to my supper 
     T'was a bottle of red whiskey
     I said my prayers and went to bed
     That's the last they saw of me

     Don't murder me
     I beg of you don't murder me
     Please 
     don't murder me

     When I awoke, the Dire Wolf
     Six hundred pounds of sin
     Was grinnin at my window
     All I said was "come on in"

     Don't murder me
     I beg of you don't murder me
     Please 
     don't murder me

     The wolf came in, I got my cards
     We sat down for a game
     I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades
     but the cards were all the same

     Don't murder me
     I beg of you don't murder me
     Please 
     don't murder me

     In the backwash of Fennario
     The black and bloody mire
     The Dire Wolf collects his due
     while the boys sing round the fire

     Don't murder me
     I beg of you don't murder me
     Please 
     don't murder me

Reprinted with permissions: copyright Ice Nine Publishing - see Grateful Dead Lyrics

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