Credit: RAPHTOR via DeviantArt
The dire wolf and the saber-tooth tiger are two of the most popular late Pleistocene megafauna animals that inhabited North America until the last Ice Age and the arrival of modern humans.
Scores of their bones have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, proving that these killers existed side by side. Both were fearsome, but who would prevail in a fatal struggle?
Contender Number One: The Dire Wolf
Dire wolves (Canis duris, meaning terrible wolf) had long caught people's curiosity before they appeared as fictitious companions in the television series Game of Thrones.
The dire wolf is a heavily mythologized predator renowned for its intimidating size, exceptional bone-cracking bite, and fondness for feeding on huge herbivores. It was just one of the amazing species that once inhabited the Americas, alongside big short-faced bears, massive sloths, and camels—a lost kingdom of creatures that just couldn't cope with the changing environment as the Pleistocene epoch drew to a close. Of course, this included the fearsome Saber-tooth tiger.
The beasts were bigger than today's modern gray wolves, reaching roughly 150 pounds. The dire wolf's skull could grow up to 12 inches long, and its teeth were bigger and more substantial than gray wolves today. The dire wolf was around the size of the biggest gray wolf, with a shoulder height of 38 inches and a length of up to 69 inches.
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Fossils of dire wolves have been discovered in North and South America, from Alaska to Mexico. The Atlantic and Pacific coastlines and parts of the central, southern, and southwestern U.S. feature dire wolf fossils. Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia contain dire wolf fossils going back 17,000 years, and a dire wolf jaw found in China suggests the animal traversed the Bering Land Bridge from North America.
The dire wolf's range implies that it thrived in various environments, including boreal grasslands, coastal open forests, and tropical wetlands.
According to research on these remarkable carnivores, horses were a major prey species, with ground sloths, bison, and camels accounting for a smaller portion of their diets. Unlike the Pleistocene saber-tooth tigers, dire wolves were not prey specialists. Teeth damage in a high number of dire wolves discovered at Rancho La Brea has also caused some experts to believe that dire wolves fought over corpses and gnaw on bone frequently.
Dire wolves, like present gray wolves and many other canids, established vast social groupings to participate in hunting and raising offspring. Male and female dire wolves exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males being bigger and more muscular than females.
With this evidence, it's plausible to assume that these ferocious predators hunted in intimidating packs to take down massive prey. In short, the dire wolves were deadly canines who most likely hunted megafauna while armed with explosive bite force and sheer numbers.
Contender Number Two: The Saber-tooth Tiger
The Saber-tooth Tiger (Smilodon fatalis) is an extinct predatory animal in the Felidae family renowned for its unusual set of long, razor-sharp fangs. The Saber Tooth Tiger, one of the most memorable ancient creatures, lived about 12,000 years ago during the last ice age.
Despite their name, these cats are not connected to the modern-day Asian tigers. The saber tooth tiger acquired its name from its massive canine teeth, which could grow almost 7 inches long. Its other teeth were tiny, curved, and incredibly sharp, allowing it to tear into softer tissue. They were, however, rather delicate and may have shattered if they had struck bone rather than tissue.
Scientists believe these creatures were similar in size and coloring to modern-day African lions (Panthera Leo), yet they are not related to lions. Smilodon fatalis weighed 160 to 280 kg, dwarfing modern-day lions and matched barely by modern-day tigers.
Its jaw was huge and could expand over 120°, double that of a modern big cat. This was useful since these lengthy canines needed a wider distance to chomp down hard on meals. Their lower canines were shorter, and their molars were as polished as the shearing blades of today.
Scientists have discovered many fossils of saber-tooth tigers. Experts deduced that saber-tooth tigers were huge animals with short limbs. Smilodons are massive cats, but the mechanical edge of lengthier heel bones compensated for their weight, enhancing their leaping abilities. Furthermore, saber-tooth tigers had shorter tails than current huge cats.
The combination of these features - great jumping and leaping ability paired with shorter tails - suggests that the Smilodon were ambush predators.
The saber-toothed tiger was a carnivore. They targeted bison, camels, horses, juvenile mammoths, mastodons (ancient hairy elephants), and ground sloths, among other huge herbivores. They've also scavenged from other predators' kills.
Because of their delicate large canine teeth, the saber-tooth tiger probably avoided biting hard, which points to an evolutionary adaptation of a weak bite force. Instead, they grappled and pierced their victim with their saber teeth until it perished.
Unlike most present-day cats, such as tigers and domestic cats, who hunt individually, the saber-tooth tiger was a social creature. Smilodon fossils discovered in the La Brea tar pits reveal evidence of fractures, extreme crushing, debilitating osteoarthritis, and other degenerative conditions.
If these cats had been solitary, they would have perished before their wounds healed. This implies that the cats probably recovered from their injuries and were cared for by other cats. The other cats helped them eat, at the very least. It led experts to believe that they lived in packs and had a social structure similar to that of lions, although smaller in number than wolves usually have.
The Dire Wolf Versus The Saber-Tooth Tiger: The Verdict
Under normal conditions, full-grown saber-toothed tigers would not even go close to comparably large dire wolves. However, if all of these hunters descended on the tar pits, the saber-tooth would be at a disadvantage since it couldn't leap from a tree limb or a concealed ambush spot.
The wolf is also at a disadvantage since it prefers eating dead animals rather than hungry and angry carnivores. The two predators would have circled one another, the ferocious wolf swatting with its paws and the saber-toothed tiger leaping and slashing with its fangs.
If Smilodon fatalis wandered in packs, they were likely smaller and loosely organized, but the dire wolf's pack instincts are considerably stronger. When three or four more wolves noticed that pack members were in danger, they would have hurried to the spot and crowded the saber-toothed tiger, leaving severe injuries with their powerful jaws.
The tiger would also have fought valiantly, but it cannot measure up to a thousand pounds of angry wolves. A crushing bite on the neck of Smilodon would have finished the struggle. The mighty dire wolves, not unscathed and not without casualties, will most likely have won the final battle and feast on the legendary saber-tooth tiger.
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