Drawing by Mark Hallett

In American mythology, the dire wolf is a menacing creature with fierce eyes and steel-like fangs, lurking in the darkness and in the song, "Dire Wolf," concertized by Grateful Dead.

However, real dire wolves roamed America until about 9000 years ago. Probably the likeness shown here is as accurate as any ever drawn. It shows the dire wolf proportioned according to precisely measured skeletal remains. Actually, the dire wolf was only slightly larger than the modern grey wolf.

I thank Mark Hallett for permission to show this image.

Here is the story of the first known dire wolf -

Late in the summer of 1854 Francis A. Linck obtained a fossilized jawbone from the bed of the Ohio River, then averaging some eleven feet lower than today, near the mouth of Pigeon Creek and a short walk from downtown Evansville, Indiana. Linck refused to let Dr. Norwood of nearby New Harmony send the fossil to Dr. Joseph Leidy in Philadelphia. However, Linck soon died, and family members granted Dr. Norwood's wish. Dr. Leidy determined that the fossil represented a new species of wolf, and the name - Canis dirus Leidy - became official in 1858.

It was my good fortune to find that Dr. Norwood's letters to Dr. Leidy have survived in Philadelphia. I obtained copies and found Dr. Norwood's handwriting neat, heavy, and easy to read. Dr. Norwood, it turned out, was the first state geologist of Illinois, and he worked closely with Dr. David Dale Owen, also of New Harmony, who was the first state geologist of Indiana. I wrote an article about the two geologists, beginning with an account of the Evansville dire wolf. You can find more about the article and dire wolf by selecting the Owen or Norwood links near the bottom of this page.

Remains of nearly 2000 dire wolves have been exhumed from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, but the type specimen is the jawbone of the Evansville dire wolf, now preserved in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

David Dale Owen
Joseph Granville Norwood
Wolves, Coyotes, and Dogs (Illinois State Museum)
Clark Kimberling Home Page