Of Lycanthropy and Dire Wolves (Canis dirus)

The fictional depiction of lycanthropic transformation is reminiscent of an oversimplified depiction of evolution. Although it seems a bizarre twist of logic, evolutionary science does support the existence of an animal that was part man and part wolf.

Man is a beast.  I think the ancient superstitious legend of the werewolf originates from a fear of ourselves or at least a fear of feral individuals within our society.  People with various mental illnesses don’t follow the rules of civilization and behave as if they were wild animals.  In modern cinema and literature the transformation of man to wolf appears as a kind of reverse evolution, depicting the man de-evolving into the most feared animal in medieval Europe–the wolf.  Of course, this doesn’t parallel the reality of evolution.  Evolution doesn’t reverse course, though occasionally retro mutations take place that begin new lines of progression.  But if evolution could reverse course in a linear regression, a man transforming back into beast would become apelike rather than as a canid/human hybrid.  On the tree of evolution primates are far removed from canids.  Despite the vast distance between the two on the evolutionary timescale, primates and canids do share a common ancestor.  Both man and wolf can trace their evolutionary lines back to a single unknown species of insectivore that diverged into two species early in the Eocene 55 million years ago, or probably earlier.  The split may have occurred as early as the Paleoecene or the Cretaceous.  When dinosaurs walked the earth what was to become man and wolf was the same animal.  According to what we know of evolution, werewolves were real and may have lived with the dinosaurs.  But they were nothing like the monsters depicted in fiction.  Instead, they were shrew-like animals, something a modern day house cat could toy with.

This is not a man wearing a werewolf mask.  He has a rare condition known as hypertrichosis.

The legend of lycanthropy may predate written language.  Both the Greeks and the Romans believed in the existence of men who could temporarily transform themselves into wolves.  The word, lycanthrope, itself is Greek: lycaos means wolf, anthrope means man.  A belief in the existence wolf men persisted in medieval Europe.  Today, we can be certain the legend was based on a number of strange factors that modern science can explain.  Then as now, serial killers occasionally terrorized society. Instead of blaming a deranged man for mutilations and murders, authorities scapegoated wolves despite conflicting evidence implicating a human.  They couldn’t comprehend that a man could be so vicious.  Diseases such as rabies and and the disorder of hypertrichosis compounded the confusion because symptoms of these conditions partly mimic the legend.  The Age of Reason ended the widespread belief in the existence of werewolves, but the legend lives on as a popular monster of horror fiction.

Here’s a skull comparison between a dire wolf and a timber wolf.  I found this photo on another wordpress blog. 

When paleo-indians encountered dire wolves they were forced to deal with a real monster.  Unlike timber wolves (Canis lupus) which originally evolved in Eurasia, dire wolves evolved in America where the large pack-hunting canids never learned to respect or fear man.  Studies of the fossil record suggest dire wolves appeared suddenly about 200,000 years BP.  They replaced Armbruster’s wolf which had been the dominant canid in America for over a million years.   It’s unclear whether dire wolves evolved from Armbruster’s wolf or another canid (C. nehringi), a little known extinct canid that inhabited South America.  Dire wolves ranged from coast to coast and from what’s now southern Canada to Peru.  They’re very common in the fossil record, suggesting they were the most abundant large predator on the continent.  In the northern parts of their range they co-existed with timber wolves.  In the southeast they co-existed with red wolves (C. rufus) and coyotes (C. latrans). 

I didn’t include an illustration of a dire wolf because at first glance, they would’ve probably looked just like a modern day timber wolf.  There were some subtle anatomical differences.  Dire wolves had a broader head, larger teeth, stronger jaws, and shorter but stouter legs.  On average they were significantly larger than timber wolves.  The average weight of an adult timber wolf is ~80 pounds.  The average weight of an adult western dire wolf was  ~120 pounds; the average of an adult eastern dire wolf was ~140 pounds.  Scientists noted a difference in size between eastern and western dire wolf fossils.  Eastern dire wolves also had longer legs than their western cousins.  Thousands of dire wolf skulls have been recovered from the La Brea tarpits in California.  Coincidentally, one of the few dire wolf skulls found in South Carolina was larger than all but one of the California skulls.  Though timber wolves average 80 pounds, some individuals do reach 160 pounds.  That suggests a really large dire wolf would’ve approached 200 pounds.  White tail deer are not large enough to sustain a pack of wolves consisting of individuals of this size.  Dire wolves required abundant bison, horses, llamas, and juvenile mammoths and mastodons.  Man and the extinction of the megafauna caused the downfall of the dire wolf.  

Interestingly, the appearance of dire wolves coincides with the evolution of the larger Smildon fatalis from the smaller Smilodon gracilis, indicating an arms race of sorts between the two.


A comment on last week’s nudie photo

I thought the hypothesis I discussed in my last week’s blog entry would be of interest to members of the fossil forum, so I posted a thread about it.  I wanted to kick my hypothesis around and see what they thought of it.  A moderator pulled the thread because my blog, which I linked, had a photo of a naked woman.  He remarked that they like to keep the fossil forum “kid friendly.”  Of course, they have the right to control the comment on their website, just as I have the right to moderate my own.  But I don’t agree with the value system behind their reasoning.

The thread was pulled on a Saturday.  It occurred to me that violent college football was on television all day.  Football is a sport where men break each other’s bones on a regular basis, and a significant risk of inflicting permanent brain damage is high.  Society is ok with exposing kids to violence, but the image of a beautiful naked woman is somehow not “kid friendly.”  Violence is good; sex is bad.  I don’t get it.

A few years ago, people were freaking out because of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.  For some reason parents were furious because children might have accidentally viewed a woman’s breast.  The same thing happened once when an intro for Monday Night Football included a sexy seductive woman.  Yet, they’re ok with big defensive lineman clobbering quarterbacks in a game.

I’m a big Georgia Bulldog fan.  David Pollack was one of my favorite players, but I found his religious values somewhat twisted.  He refused to participate in his selection as  a Playboy all-American because of his religious beliefs.  He wears a wristband with the quote of “What would Jesus do?”  Well, I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t knock the shit out of a quarterback.

Our society considers it acceptable to expose children to violence as entertainment but rejects exposing them to images of naked women.  Our society has a twisted value system that teaches kids violence is good but sexuality is dirty and bad.  I don’t agree with the notion that viewing images of naked women is in any way harmful to children.

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10 Responses to “Of Lycanthropy and Dire Wolves (Canis dirus)”

  1. Mark L. Says:

    I’m with you for the most part, Mark, but can’t agree with you on the nude issue as there was 1) no warning 2) no past history of pics. I’ve recommended your site to several boy scouts for historical/fossil info, and thought about this when you put the article out last week (cringing). In the end I can’t reference your material if there is anything ‘offensive’…and I agree there are much worse things but I gotta go by what kids see (11-18 year olds). You do much better work being subtle than an ‘in your face’ approach. (JMHO)

  2. markgelbart Says:

    We’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t think there is anything offensive about a photo of a naked beautiful woman.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    My two oldest brothers both graduated from UGA. Both are big Bulldogs fans, of course.

    There’s nothing offensive in that photo. Keep it where it is.

    Last February my wife and I got to go visit the La Brea Tar Pits. It was fantastic! They have literally hundreds of dire wolf skulls on display. Also many smilodon, etc. We went over to see the current dig in progress. They are constantly excavating the site and pulling more and more stuff out of it. You can stand and look into the lab to see the process of cleaning and sorting bones.

    Outside on the grounds you can see the tar bubbling up here and there through the grass. And of course you can see the pools of tar barely covered by a skein of water, just as they did in the Pleistocene, trapping those many thousands of creatures.

  4. markgelbart Says:

    I wish I could see the La Brea tarpits. California is just too far away.

  5. James Robert Smith Says:

    I went to Los Angeles because I had a story in a hardback anthology and a number of the authors were going to attend a signing. How could I miss sitting in with the likes of Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, Jr., William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, Norman Corwin, and others? I had to be there, so we went for the tickets and took extra time to visit places like La Brea and Joshua Tree National Park. I also got to go to an art exhibit of painter/underground cartoonist Robert Williams. Jove, that was an experience!

  6. markgelbart Says:

    Wow! Ray Bradbury and Earl Hamner. I didn’t know Hamner wrote horror. I remember the Waltons, and I knew he wrote an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He had a short story published last year in The Strand.

  7. James Robert Smith Says:

    Earl Hamner, Jr. was one of the most prolific screenwrights on the old TWILIGHT ZONE TV series. I think he wrote (appropriately) 13 episodes of it, including one of my favorites, “Jess-Belle”.

    He can quite capture the darkness when he wants to.

    The thing about him is that he was what I imagined him to be: A very sweet (and rich) Southern gentleman.

  8. James Robert Smith Says:

    Thought you’d be interested in this. Three years old…but, still:


  9. markgelbart Says:

    I never heard of that one. I knew about the proposed Pleistocene Park in Siberia.

  10. J. Says:

    I didn´t know about Smilodon gracilis’ “response” to the appearance of the Dire wolf. It has been said that lions became social animals because of spotted hyenas; living and hunting in prides not only allowed lions to succesfully compete with hyenas, but also to avoid competition (and become dominant over) other felines such as leopards and solitary sabertooths.

    Perhaps the same happened with Smilodon and Canis dirus.

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