17
$\begingroup$

In many fantasy settings, soldiers (generally orcs) ride on wolves the size of horses, plundering and raiding to their hearts' content.

The only issue I see with this image (aside from using a carnivorous mount) is that it is almost never stated where these giant wolves come from. If one thinks about it, what is the ecological niche of such a large canine in the first place?

Is short, what are the ecological niches a giant wolf would occupy?

Assumptions:

  • It's a part of the family Canidae
  • Is the size of a horse 1.4m to 1.7m
$\endgroup$
11
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ A Percheron is a big, strong, slow draft horse. It is about one and half times taller and about three to four times heavier than a wild horse. The wild horse has an ecological niche. The Percheron doesn't. But there are very many more Percherons in this world than wild horses. Because we breed Percherons, just like the orcs breed their riding wolves. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 27 at 10:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Are there other large animals around? Or is it only wolves that have a large variant? I'm thinking predator prey $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Jan 27 at 18:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ No, not slow cows. Then it wouldn't have had evolutionary pressure to be fast, it would be lumbering. I see it preying on larger animals like reindeer or oversize moose, or maybe even in packs,felling some ancestral rhino, in which both predator and prey are oversized and limber. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Jan 27 at 20:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen there is a difference between breeding and evolution. Evolving to be bigger means that each generation must be selectively fit to move the bar towards bigger. Breeding is where you select against every gene/adaption that favors smallness. Since breeding does not wait to make sure that each generation is fit, health problems tend to accompany it. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 28 at 16:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @coppereyecat An appropriate saddle could act as a brace to compensate for the Wolf's less ridged back. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 28 at 16:26

5 Answers 5

19
$\begingroup$

Grasslands Large Game Predator

enter image description here

Epicyon haydeni is the largest ever species of true canine. It was only a bit more massive than largest canines today. It lived in the Great Planes region of North America filling more or less the same niche that lions do in the African Savana today. Unfortunately, this is a good bit smaller that a horse, but there is a much larger pre-historic animal that looks and acts a lot like a wolf that could easily fit the role of you wargs.

enter image description here

Megistotherium osteothlastes were a species of Hyaenodontidae making them not related to Wolves at all, but their similarities are enough I think they make a good candidate for this answer. These creatures lived in what is now the Sahara Desert, which was at the time, very similar to how the African Savanna is today. Weighing in at 300-650kg, these creatures fit well within the size range of a typical racing horse.

So what did these larger than modern animals have in common? Open grasslands and suitable large prey. Epicyon haydeni had access to various species of horses, camels, and rhinoceroses which would have been as large or larger than most prey that modern wolves hunt, and remains of megistotherium osteothlastes found alongside Gomphothere, suggesting that they hunted these distant cousins to modern elephants.

So, if you want your setting to have horse sized wolves using modern prey, putting them along side plentiful populations of too-big-to-hunt otherwise herbivores like elephants, hippos, and/or rhinos is probably the best way to go.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ I love me some ice-age megafauna and using them in fantastic settings. I think simply using that period as a basis for a fantasy setting give you tons of 'familiar but not' animals with a consistent ecology for very little work! $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jan 27 at 20:24
17
$\begingroup$

With that size it would compete with bears (130 to 190 centimeters) or big felids like lions and tigers, and would probably end up occupying similar ecological niches.

The actual niches strongly depend on the anatomical features of the creature, which you don't mention.

For sure, due to its size, it would need to be the apex predator and would need to have a large feeding base to ensure its sustenance. It might also become an omnivore like the bear is, in order to increase its chances of finding food.

$\endgroup$
10
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Taking the place of Savannah lions is the most believable. Since Wolves and Lions both live in family groups. This also makes them easier to breed and tame. Easier than taming a pack of tigers at least. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 27 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ It also makes sense for there to be large open grasslands, if people are using mounts in the first place. You don't use a mount if you live in the jungle or mountain range. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 27 at 15:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wolves are already partly omnivorous (they eat fruits and berries). If they have access to cooked food, it's conceivable they could eat an even more heavily omnivorous diet. (Consider for example modern dog feed, which often has significant grain content.) $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 27 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Though this raises the question -- why would you domesticate the lions rather than the wildebeest/zebra/buffalo? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 27 at 15:49
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Daron In addition to fighting, wolves have much better hearing and smell and than most ungulates. A wolf mount can help you track prey, or alert you of danger way better than more horse like alternatives. Basically, Humans domesticated dogs and horses for 2 different purposes, but a Warg could fill the needs of both. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 27 at 17:01
14
$\begingroup$

Bigger wolves, bigger preys

A normal wolf needs 2.5 pounds of food every day.

If wolves become the size of horses, then their prey will also become bigger i.e. bison sized deer, or bison in large sized herds. This is necessary for their survival.

Wolves are sometimes omnivorous

This article mentions that

Most nutritionists agree that a wolf's diet consists of around 60% meat and 40% plant material. This varies according to seasons and other factors.

This article explains wolf diet in winter, spring, summer and fall.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ There's no terrestrial animal on this planet that a heard of felines cannot take down. They are under evolutionary pressure not to get any larger. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jan 27 at 23:28
14
$\begingroup$

Well, given what you say, it sounds like their ecological nice would be a domesticated animal.

Many draft horses are big, lumbering beasts. They have no ecological niche in the wild, they exist because humans bred them to serve as beasts of burden.

There is no reason to think things would be significantly different for riding wolves, such species could be selectively bred for size and other requirements. A grey wolf (the largest extant canid species today) can grow to about 92cm, roughly 2/3 of your target size. That scale difference is not too different from the difference between a normal riding horse and the largest draft horses, so it’s probably doable without issue.


On a side note, being carnivorous is not likely to be as much of an issue as you think. No canid is an obligate carnivore, and there’s no reason to think that your riding wolves would be either. Yes, they would need a lot of food, but that’s not actually too different from a horse, and a large chunk of that could be grains or other plant products (just like dog food in real life). Tolerance of a more plant-based diet is something that could even have been actively selected for during breeding.

$\endgroup$
3
  • $\begingroup$ You may be overestimating selective breeding here. While wolves can reach almost 2/3 the height of a small horse, they don't get anywhere near the same muscle mass. Wolves max out at about 140lb, whereas war horses were generally in the 800-1000lb range. Selective breeding has gotten domestic dogs up to about 240lb, but those breeds suffer from significant skeletal problems. It could take millions of years of breeding for enough random gigantism positive mutations to happen for an 800lb wolf to be viable and healthy. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 27 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ Not saying it isn't doable, but the setting would have to support a very ancient symbioses between orcs and wolves that dates back to before they were useful mounts. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 27 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki That’s not that unreasonable though if you assume they are sufficiently domesticated to be no more hazardous to their orcish riders/handlers than a horse is to their human riders/handlers. That level of domestication simply does not happen overnight, and without very specifically targeted selective breeding with that specific goal in mind it doesn’t even happen in a few dozen generations. $\endgroup$ Jan 28 at 15:37
8
$\begingroup$

It's probably a scavenger. The fact that "regular" wolves get no where near that size is a hint that the costs to being that size -- lessened agility, higher caloric requirements, etcetera -- are not "worth it" in terms of evolutionary selection. For that reason, this larger wolf is probably not a pack hunter like a "regular wolf."

I'm not up to date on this issue, but I remember a theory going around that the tyrannosaurus must have been a scavenger for much the same reason that your wolf would be. It's size would have made hiding/sneaking more difficult and fast chases downright dangerous (due to risk of injury). On the other hand, the size does make it scary and likely, then, able to scare smaller predators off kills that they made.

If you don't like the scavenger angle, I see one other obvious one. Big cats get much closer to horse-size than wolves. I think tigers are the biggest, but lions are close and socialize much more like wolves. I don't have the expertise to say why they ended up being so much bigger. My guesses range from bigger prey to different (likely more effective) hunting strategies to competition with other large predators/prey that created an evolutionary arms race (e.g. for lions: hippos, water buffalo, rhinos, etc. are a lot scarier than deer -- for tigers: they've been known to kill grown crocodiles, water buffalo also, etc.) to intra-species competition. If you feel like you find a satisfying explanation for the wolf vs. big cat size discrepancy then you may be able to adapt it to your purposes.

Personally, I think the scavenger angle is much more plausible. Dogs and cats have significantly different builds and I don't imagine the wolf building scaling as well as the cat's, much less scaling to be 2-3 times the size of the largest cat.

Edit:

It occurred to me shortly after writing this that it's also plausible that the wolves were artificially selected-for/bred for size. Medieval knights did this with horses, so there is a direct historical analogue. When I came back here to check whether this explanation fit into the parameters of your question I noticed that a commenter made a similar note about breeding. I decided to add this to my answer anyway because it may be important to you that war horses, not just draft horses, were also bred selectively since that is a better match for your setting.

Personally, I still like the scavenger angle. I would use that or maybe have them be large scavengers that have been bred to be even larger by orcs. It feels really unlikely that a "regular" wolf could be bred up to 10-20x it's size. On the other hand, if your scavengers were already 5x the size of a "regular" wolf then why not try and make them a little bigger still? I think those two ideas could complement each other.

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .