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When dinosaurs became extinct approximately 65 million years ago, mammals began to fill the niches once occupied by the large reptiles.
Fifty-five million years ago, the first mammals with specialized meat-shearing teeth, called carnassials, evolved. One of these animals, known as Miacis, is thought of as the key ancestor of both wolves and bears.
Thirty-five million years later, animals that would become the Canid, or dog family, began to move out into the open country and evolve with longer limbs built for speed. Long legs, as well as sharp claws and keen senses were necessary if these carnivores were to become successful predators. These early meat-eaters followed their prey into almost every available habitat in the Northern Hemisphere: Arctic tundra, high plains, lowland savannas, and (excluding tropical rain forests) all types of forests. With the exception of present day human beings, wolves were one of the most widely distributed land mammals that ever lived.
It was in the Pleistocene era, around one million years ago, that true proto-wolves emerged. These animals had bigger brains and longer jaws than earlier forms, and from them evolved gray wolves (Canis lupus) as well as their short-lived cousins, dire wolves (Canis dirus), which existed over 100,000 years ago. The dire wolf overlapped with the present day wolf before it became extinct some 17,000 years ago. The present day gray wolf was originally recognized and designated Canis lupus by the Swedish biologist Carolus Linneaus in 1758.
Over millions of years wolves have evolved into highly intelligent animals with a successful social structure that enables them to live and hunt in family groups called packs. This arrangement allows wolves to hunt larger animals than a single wolf, hunting alone, would be able to do. This family unit also promotes greater survival of their young.