When Did Dire Wolves Go Extinct?

Written by Kirstin Harrington
Updated: June 21, 2023
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Key Points

  • The dire wolf was the largest of the extinct lineage of what we now know as the grey wolf was called the Late Pleistocene canids.
  • Not much different than the wolves of today, the average dire wolf had a shoulder height of just under 40 inches and their bodies were about 70 inches long.
  • Many theories abound as to what drove them to extinction – climate change, environmental changes, and hunting are just a few.

Did you know that not all species of wolves that have ever existed are still around today? The dire wolf is one of those that has since gone extinct. In fact, it’s said that dire wolves went extinct around 10,000 years ago! 

Although shows like Game of Thrones fictionally had these animals be pets, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s take a look at everything there is to know about these creatures and what happened to make them go extinct. 

What Did Dire Wolves Look Like?

dire wolves

Dire wolves weighed between 125 and 175 pounds with a shoulder height of just under 40 inches.


The extinct lineage of what we now know as the grey wolf was called the Late Pleistocene canids. The dire wolf was the largest of these! With teeth stronger and larger than that of today’s wolves, there’s no wonder why their skulls were around a foot long. 

Their bodies weren’t all that different from the wolves we see today. The average dire wolf had a shoulder height of just under 40 inches and their bodies were about 70 inches long. The classification for these creatures are:

  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Subfamily: Caninae

Dire wolves had unique coloring. On and around their legs had grey hair, while all other areas of their body had reddish-orange hues. These animals were said to weigh between 125 and 175 pounds. 

What Did Dire Wolves Eat?

Dire wolves hunting

Dire wolves were

hypercarnivorous and lived off of large mammals.

©Aunt Spray/Shutterstock.com

Researchers used a technique dubbed isotopic analysis to determine the dire wolf’s dietary habits. If there’s one thing that dire wolves enjoyed eating, it was meat! This species was known as hypercarnivorous, meaning that meat makes up the majority of their diet. 

They lived off of large mammals, including bison, wild horses, mastodons, camels, and ground sloths. Surprisingly, dire wolves were not highly trained hunters. 

They consumed the megafauna that was most prevalent. It’s possible that a whole pack of dire wolves attacked adult bison. The power of their bite was astonishing. It’s said to be comparable to many of today’s top predators. 

According to some experts, canids likely hunted in packs and typically incapacitated prey with numerous shallow, crippling bites. 

Think about how a lion may jump on top of a bison and begin clawing and biting it until it’s brought to the ground. The dire wolf likely used similar hunting techniques to bring down its prey. 

Dire Wolf Extinction

Joseph Leidy was a paleontologist working near the Ohio River in Indiana in 1854 when the first dire wolf fossils were discovered. Leidy named the species just four years later thanks to additional fossils found in the Midwest.

It’s thought that these animals have been around since over 250,000 years ago. Dire wolves also went by the Latin name Canis Aenocyon dirus. This translates to “terrible wolf.” So, what caused these animals to go extinct?

With plenty of research going into how these animals disappeared, it’s thought the extinction occurred within 1,000 years or less after the Pleistocene Era ended. There’s debate as to how exactly dire wolves went extinct.

Some researchers claim climate change is to blame, while others think a massive comet wiped them out. Another theory suggests that big game left the areas where dire wolves roamed, leaving them to eventually starve to death. 

Research continues as we do not have a current answer as to how these creatures vanished. There are even theories that people hunted all of the dire wolves until there were simply none left.

On the same note, if humans did interact with these animals, they likely could’ve introduced diseases to the environment that dire wolves weren’t previously exposed to. All of these theories still make us wonder why some species perished, while others began to thrive. 

Where Did Dire Wolves Live?

Dire wolf skeleton

There were 3,600 dire wolf bones discovered at the La Brea Tar Pits in California.

©Rodney, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – License

The dire wolf once roamed all around North America, from Oregon to Texas to Pennsylvania, as well as sections of Latin America. Their environment was really erratic. They would inhabit wide grasslands and plains as well as forested slopes. 

There were 3,600 dire wolf bones discovered at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. This is in comparison to gray wolf skeletons that were found. It’s safe to say a majority of these animals called California home. 

These animals who lived in Mexico are assumed to have favored the surroundings of a tropical marsh with thorny scrub, deciduous woodland, and grassland close. Dire wolves have been discovered as fossils all over North America. They’ve mostly been found in southern Canada, Panama, and northern South America. 

New Genetic Clues: Were They Even Wolves?

Paleontologists were surprised to learn from a recent analysis of dire wolves’ DNA that these creatures may not even be wolves, instead being the last remaining members of a canine lineage that originated in North America. 

According to preliminary genetic studies, dire and gray wolves have never been closely related. Scientists took genomes from dire wolf fossils and had them sequenced. The results revealed that these extinct beasts were linked to a considerably older family of dogs than previously thought. 

Technically speaking, the new discoveries suggest that dire wolves may require a new genus designation to denote that they are not a part of the genus Canis, which includes gray wolves. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Kirstin is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering animals, news topics, fun places, and helpful tips. Kirstin has been writing on a variety of topics for over five years. She has her real estate license, along with an associates degree in another field. A resident of Minnesota, Kirstin treats her two cats (Spook and Finlay) like the children they are. She never misses an opportunity to explore a thrift store with a coffee in hand, especially if it’s a cold autumn day!

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