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Norwood's letters to Leidy are preserved along with the type specimen (the first of a species that has a written description) at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1857, while exploring the Niobrara River valley in Nebraska, Leidy found the vertebrae of an extinct Canis species that he reported the following year under the name C.dirus (Leidy 1858) and Canis indianensis (Leidy 1869).

The species was named in 1858, four years after the first specimen had been found.

Two subspecies are recognized, these being Canis dirus guildayi and Canis dirus dirus.

The dire wolf was about the same size as the largest modern gray wolves (Canis lupus), which are the Yukon wolf and the northwestern wolf.

C.lupus, but its teeth were larger with greater shearing ability, and its bite force at the canine tooth was the strongest of any known Canis species.

Dire wolf remains have been found across a broad range of habitats including the plains, grasslands, and some forested mountain areas of North America, and in the arid savannah of South America.

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In 1987, a new hypothesis proposed that a mammal population could give rise to a larger form called a hypermorph during times when food was abundant, but when food later became scarce the hypermorph would either adapt to a smaller form or go extinct.

Dire wolf fossils have rarely been found north of 42°N latitude, with five unconfirmed reports above this latitude.

This range restriction is thought to be due to temperature, prey, or habitat limitations imposed by proximity to the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets that existed at the time.

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.