A basement treasure trove within a Canadian museum held an unexpected surprise—an ancient fossilized jaw of a fearsome creature that once roamed the bluffs along the South Saskatchewan River. This formidable predator competed with saber-toothed cats in hunting an array of large prey, including horses, bison, camels, and mammoths.

Taking inspiration from the pandemic lockdown, researcher Ashley R. Reynolds from the Department of Natural History, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, decided to reevaluate past discoveries armed with updated knowledge. This renewed exploration led to intriguing revelations, including the findings recently published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

Earlier research by Reynolds and her colleagues had unveiled the first evidence of a Canadian saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, from the museum's collection. In this latest study titled "Dire wolf (Canis dirus) from the late Pleistocene of southern Canada (Medicine Hat, Alberta)," Reynolds meticulously examined additional fossil material from the same excavation site. The result: the formal identification of a dire wolf from a fossilized jawbone within the collection.

Although discovered back in 1969, the fossil's identity as a dire wolf wasn't confirmed until now. The initial identification by C. S. Churcher in 1970 was based on the fossil's considerable size. Despite this, the fossil hadn't been thoroughly illustrated or described, leaving room for uncertainty.

Dire wolves, close relatives of gray wolves, boasted robust builds and powerful jaws. With three species ranging from North and South America to Eastern China, they often coexisted with other formidable predators, including saber-toothed cats.

Remarkably, this jawbone had remained unstudied for decades, even though it marks Canada's first and only known dire wolf discovery. Situated about 500 km north of its northernmost known occurrence, this finding is unique. The lack of previous scrutiny could be attributed to its outlier status, causing initial identifications to lack confidence.

Distinguishing between the well-preserved fossilized jaws of a gray wolf and a dire wolf would be straightforward due to distinct size and dental patterns. However, the 1969 fossil was in poor condition, fractured and missing essential teeth surfaces. To determine its identity, researchers conducted meticulous measurements, comparing them with known dire wolf fossils, gray wolves, and gray wolf ancestors.

The analysis showed some overlap between dire wolves and gray wolf ancestors, but the fossil's plot firmly positioned it in the dire wolf category, in line with the 1970 report. Radiocarbon dating estimated the fossil to be around 45,000 years old, shedding light on the species' historical presence.

This overdue study enriches our understanding of dire wolf territories, showcasing a recent 40,000-year-old dire wolf fossil found in North East China as a testament to their migrations between Asia and North America. The findings hint at their possible interaction with early human migrations into Beringia, as these dire wolves could have persisted until around 9,500 years ago.

As the museum's basement relinquishes its secrets, we continue to piece together the captivating tale of Earth's prehistoric inhabitants.