A dire wolf skeleton discoverd in Gilmer County, West Virginia, proves that the species lived as recently as 300 years ago. This finding will rewrite the natural history of wolves in North America.
A few weeks ago, I received a heads up about a discovery that happened just a few miles from where I grew up. Indeed, this discovery happened not too far from my great great grandparents’ homestead on Lower Run, which is just near the line between Calhoun and Gilmer Counties in West Virginia. This discovery happened last August. It is only now that the full results have been released to the public. The exact location has not been revealed.
It seems that a member of a local hunt club, who shall remain anonymous, was exploring a cave that is known for having lots of Indian arrowheads on the cave floor. Over the years, most of the arrowheads have been taken out. This individual was checking out the far reaches of this cave when he came across some bones.
After shining his flashlight over them, he discovered that they were of some sort of large dog. Indeed, he thought they might belong to a St. Bernard that had run away a few years ago.
However, there was no hair around the skeleton. The only thing left was the bones. He called the DNR to report the find. Then the US Geological Survey got involved.
And that’s when things got interesting.
It turns out that the skull for this skeleton was not at all like that of a St. Bernard. It was obviously that of a wolf.
And a very robust one at that.
It had much larger teeth than any known gray wolf population.
Indeed, its anatomy most closely resembled the dire wolves that were taken out of the La Brea tar pits.
However, there was one problem with these remains being those of a dire wolf.
They were radiocarbon dated to the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.
Europeans had not yet penetrated beyond the Blue Ridge when this wolf had died.
However, its remains are far more recent than any dire wolf skeleton yet discovered.
This finding means that dire wolves lived during the modern era.
Ken Olsen, the paleontologist leading the multidisciplinary investigation into the Gilmer County dire wolf, says that these findings are earth shattering:
“Apparently dire wolves were able to survive in North America much longer than we thought. That means that European settlers and explorers could have come in contact with this truly monstrous wolf.”
There are so many descriptions of giant wolves on the North American frontier. Perhaps that is why we have legends like the Shunka Warakin, the Waheela, and the giant Ontario white wolf. Maybe they were actually dire wolves.
Olsen says the reason why no other recent dire wolves have been discovered is that the wolves probably were not that common.
“They were probably reduced to a relict population around the end of the last ice age. There probably weren’t many of them anywhere.”
The fact that this cave is on an historic major migration for Eastern bison intrigues Olsen:
“We know that dire wolves were big game specialists. We also know that the Eastern bison were the largest of the North American bison, and only a wolf truly specialized to bringing down big game could regularly prey upon them.”
Why the dire wolf went extinct without any mention without any historical mention of them is a good question.
“Perhaps settlers killed dire wolves without realizing that they represented a unique species. It is suggested that coyotes, which were once endemic to the East, were killed without any understanding that they were unique from gray wolves.”
Olsen also speculates that canine disease could have wiped out the wolf population before Europeans settled this part of West Virginia.
“The earliest settlers came to this part of West Virgina in the period between the French and Indian War and the Revolution. It is unlikely that this dire wolf ever saw a European or that a European ever saw it. It is possible that the dire wolves went extinct before Europeans crossed the Blue Ridge. Maybe dire wolves were susceptible to diseases that were carried by European dogs. Something similar happened to the dogs of the Native Americans. They simply had no immunity to the pathogens that European dogs carried.”
The dire wolf skeleton is being searched for possible DNA samples. The exact position of the dire wolf in genus Canis is not entirely clear.
However, we do know that Canis dirus was still around as recently as 300 years ago.
And that is a truly remarkable find.
These dire wolf remains are going to rewrite the story of Canis on the North American continent.
I wonder if any other remains from recent dire wolves are going to be found. I think that it is likely, but it also likely that dire wolf remains have been misidentified as those of unusually robust gray wolf specimens.
Maybe the museum collections have some other remains that haven’t been identified as dire wolves.
But one thing is clear:
The story of wolves in North America needs to be rewritten.
Update: Do not write a comment without reading this.
Read Full Post »