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The species was named in 1858, four years after the first specimen had been found.
Two subspecies are recognized: Canis dirus guildayi and Canis dirus dirus.
The first specimen of what would later become associated with Canis dirus was found in mid-1854 in the bed of the Ohio River near Evansville, Indiana.
The fossilized jawbone with cheek-teeth was obtained by the geologist Joseph Granville Norwood from an Evansville collector, Francis A. The paleontologist Joseph Leidy determined that the specimen represented an extinct species of wolf and reported it under the name of Canis primaevus.
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Dire wolf fossils have rarely been found north of 42°N latitude; there have been only five unconfirmed reports above this latitude.
The dire wolf (Canis dirus, "fearsome dog") is an extinct species of the genus Canis.
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These characteristics are thought to be adaptations for preying on Late Pleistocene megaherbivores, and in North America its prey are known to have included horses, ground sloths, mastodons, bison, and camels.
As with other large Canis hypercarnivores today, the dire wolf is thought to have been a pack hunter.