Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dire Wolves vs. Gray Wolves in the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy




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           Chayton and Kangi held their breaths and listened to the night with Pahin. Chayton heard the croak of a bullfrog near the creek and the chirping of a cricket near the trail, but other than that, the night was silent. Then, the hunters all heard it, a wolf howling in the canyon. The hunters held their breaths and continued to listen, attempting to pinpoint the direction of the howl. A wolf howled and then another wolf returned the howl.
            "We must hurry, they are behind us,” Pahin stated.  
            The crescent moon was now high in the sky and its light reflected off the scattered clouds, making it light enough to make out the trail in front of them. The three hunters ascended a knoll and from there they saw the small yellow lights from the tribe’s campfires.

“There is our camp!” Pahin yelled over his shoulder. “We have almost made it!”
Chayton managed to laugh from his tired lungs as he looked over his shoulder to make sure Kangi was still following. The adrenalin of the three hunters sped them along the trail, as the campfires grew larger. 
The black wolf galloped effortlessly along the trail, invisible in the dark, like a demon of the night. The wind curled up its lips exposing its large canine teeth into what resembled a smile. The monstrous animal no longer needed a scent to follow the humans. The black wolf turned its head and snarled at the others, a warning for the pack to remain quiet. The lust of the kill flowed through the gaunt body of the black wolf as it picked up its pace to a full run. 
Kangi never heard the black wolf before it slammed into him, knocking him down....


            The above passage comes from Chapter 3 of Shadows on the Trail where three members of the prehistoric tribe, the Folsom People, encounter a pack of starving wolves. When this story took place 10,700 years ago, humans and wolves were at the same level in the food chain; many prehistoric humans ended up as the main meal course for packs of voracious wolves while wolves served as a food source for prehistoric humans. While the prehistoric humans had fire and spears to defend themselves against these formidable predators, wolves roamed in packs of ten, twenty or even more wolves. It does not take much of an imagination to see the dilemma humans had!
 
                               Figure one - Size comparison between Dire Wolf and Gray Wolf.

         
            When I wrote Shadows on the Trail, I thought about using dire wolves, an extinct wolf species, but after doing my overall research on wolves, I concluded that gray wolves were more efficient hunters than dire wolves, therefore a more threatening species. Although dire wolves were larger than gray wolves (calculated to weigh 25% more from fossil evidence) and had a more powerful bite (calculated to be 129% of a gray wolf's bite), they were not as fleet of foot (based on their heavier build) and dire wolves were most likely less intelligent (based on their smaller brain cavity).
Figure two - Comparison between gray wolf skull on the left and
extinct dire wolf skull on the right (courtesy Dire Wolf Project).
          While gray wolves were social, highly intelligent, and efficient predators of both small and large game, it appears dire wolves focused their hunting and scavenging on the large megafauna of the Pleistocene which ultimately went extinct. Shortly thereafter, dire wolves also went extinct.

                                     
Figure three - Artist's depiction of a dire wolf
(courtesy of epicdocumentaries.com).

    

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            Over sixteen hundred remains of dire wolves have been excavated from the Rancho La Brea
tar pits in southern California while only eight gray wolves have been excavated from the same tar pits. Even if the population was much greater for dire wolves than for gray wolves, the disparity of fossil remains at the tar pits between dire and gray wolves is significant. The evidence seems to indicate that a large part of dire wolves' existence in the area depended on scavenging the large mammals that were already trapped in the tar, ultimately becoming stuck themselves. The lack of gray wolves in the tar pits may indicate that they chose different animals to hunt or were smart enough to stay out of the tar. The bottom line is gray wolves survived into modern times by being efficient and intelligent predators while dire wolves faded away into extinction with mammoths, short-faced bears, camelops, wild horses, and several other species. 

        
That was my rationale for using a species that was not only extremely dangerous to prehistoric humans, but also highly intelligent and fleet of foot, thus Canis lupus or the gray wolf was one of the star predators in Shadows on the Trail


Figure four - Gray wolf, super predator. 
(courtesy wordpress.com)