On National Dog Day, learn about one of the most iconic fossil canines of all time—the dire wolf. Known to science long before the similarly named animal characters in the Game of Thrones, today the best record of dire wolf populations comes from the tar pits of Los Angeles, California.
This is a dire wolf skull excavated from the La Brea tar pits, one of several tar pit predator specimens in our fossil collection (the majority of Ice Age fossils from the tar pits is curated in California). The dire wolf was about the same size as modern grey wolves, but the former had a more robust skeleton. These top dogs represent the pinnacle of pursuit predators in the evolutionary history of dogs, having leg joints specialized for long-distance running, with a range of motion restricted to a single plane for increased efficiency. They lived in North America at the same time as large hoofed mammals such as camels, horses, bison, and gigantic ground sloths (a skeleton of which is visible in the background), none of which were easy prey. Evidence of the intensity of predation, or perhaps competition with other dire wolves, can be gleaned from healed injuries such the blow to the top of the braincase that this animal survived prior to being laid to rest in its asphaltic grave.
Research heavily based on the Museum’s fossil dog collection—the largest of its kind in the world—shows how dogs evolved in response to a cooling, drying climate in North America over the last 40 million years. Learn more about this new research.