A collection of dire wolf skulls

This image shows fewer than 400 of the 1600+ dire wolf skulls found in the La Brea Tar Pits — natural seepages of asphalt that trapped thousands upon thousands of animals over centuries. Like most of you, I was familiar with what the tar pits were. But, until I visited last week, I hadn't really had a grasp of just how many animal remains have been found there. Seriously, the place is lousy with bones. As in, chunks of partially excavated asphalt look more like jumbles of bone held together with some hardened goop.

For the record, dire wolves really did exist, and they really were larger than modern wolves — but not as much larger as you might imagine from reading Game Of Thrones. There's a lot of overlap in the Bell Curves here, with the average dire wolf probably having been about the same size as the larger specimens of modern grey wolves.

Meanwhile, there are people trying to breed a dog that fits the fantasy of pet dire wolves — really big, really wolfy, and yet somehow well-behaved. It is not, however, terribly like the real-life dire wolf, in looks or genetics.


  1. I love the La Brea Tar Pits, but I feel like the place hasn’t changed significantly since the early ’80s: is that true?  I went recently and felt like they had all the same animatronics and skeletons that I remembered as a five-year-old.

    Which reminds me, are they selling those saber-tooth salad tongs yet?  They were just a prototype in the lab when I was there last.

    1.  It’s changed a bit.  The gross bit of tar ooze in one of the main lawns that I stuck my hand in accidentally (while eating lunch) on a elementary school trip, then told a docent about, is now an excavation pit.  Yeah, no credit at all for “discovering” that one…

      1. Shouldn’t the credit for discovery go to the critters who got stuck there first, thus luring in all those wolves?

    2. I went recently and felt like they had all the same animatronics and skeletons that I remembered as a five-year-old.

      Is that bad?  Some things don’t need to be updated.

    3. I went recently and felt like they had all the same animatronics and skeletons that I remembered as a five-year-old.

      Ice age animals haven’t changed that much since the 80s. Dinosaurs are another story: I remember when they were still monstrous lizards instead of oversized chickens.

  2. A recent BBC documentary by Dr Alice Roberts visits the store rooms containing the thousands upon thousands of bones they’ve (so far) dug out. The last episode was on last night so all three are on the iplayer to stream for another six days – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p018c9fm

  3. I haven’t been there since I was two years old. I’d like to see it now that I  can actually understand it. I really want one of those dogs and some replica skulls.  

    Are the tar pits still at the intersection of Pico and Sepulveda?

        1.  Ah, didn’t even occur to me that this was a “mystic knights of Oingo Boingo”/forbidden zone reference.  My bad.

    1. “Game of Thrones” related factoid: the Spanish explorers who first documented those dire wolf-filled pits also established El Camino Real (“The King’s Road”).

    2.  Yes, that happens time and time again when one language slowly supplants another in the same geographical region. My favorite is
      Torpenhow Hill in northwest England, whose name translates as HillHillHill Hill.

    1. That makes sense. When you only have six days to create and populate a whole planet you have to cut corners somewhere.

  4. What I found more impressive was that they have enough Sabertooth skulls to show the sequence of tooth replacement from infant to adult.

    There’s a LOT of skull erosion involved to bring in a new tooth that size without ever depriving the smilodon of a working set of weapons. I somehow suspect that a teething sabertooth was NOT a happy animal.

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