According to cryptozoological legend, on the Kamchatka peninsula there lived a bear with short black fur which surpassed all others in size. The last specimen was collected in the 1920s, but there are rumors they persist in areas closed off by the military (Bille 1995). The Internet expanded on the legend by lumping Bergman’s bear with other mysterious Kamchatkan bears¹ and so now it is rumored to be a surviving Arctodus simus. Does it really matter if your Prehistoric Survivor is on the wrong continent, a cryptid has just got to be one, right?
Unfortunately, as a Joy-Dampening Hyperskeptic I did the unthinkable and consulted the original source. It turns out that the stories floating around, particularly those online, are hopelessly confused. The evidence of a distinct species or even subspecies is astoundingly weak. So, basically, it’s all bullshit. Here’s why!
Sten Bergman was part of a 1920–22 Swedish expedition to Kamchatka and had considerable field experience with bears, seeing them daily on some parts of the peninsula. His friend René Malaise² stayed on the peninsula for nine years, and so Bergman (1936) relies heavily on his observations as well. Bergman reported that in Ust-Kamchatsk in 1920, he was shown a black, short-furred pelt which was far larger than any other bear skin he had ever seen. He felt it was unusual since the Kamchatkan bears he observed were typically light brown (but highly variable) and always long-furred. Somewhere along the line, hunters informed Bergman that the largest bears were always black. His friend Malaise reported seeing the skull of a huge black bear which was evidently not particularly old. I’m curious as to how he knew about the fur color. Malaise also reported finding tracks 37 cm long and 25 cm wide (14.6″ x 9.8″), although no connection to black fur is mentioned. Bergman (1936) summed up the matter by stating:
There is much, then, that speaks for the existence in Kamchatka of a quite black, gigantic bear, in addition to the ordinary brown type; but this question must remain an open one.
So not only did Bergman not name a new species³, he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept! Upon scrutiny, this cryptid totally falls apart. The number of accounts is exceedingly small and second-hand. The documentation of the specimens and anecdotes is quite vague. No physical specimens were kept, no measurements taken, and no detailed morphology was noted. If there really was a second bear on Kamchatka, shouldn’t there be some immediately noticeable morphological and ecological differences? Why would the only individuals observed be large (presumed) males? Isn’t it awfully convenient for this purported form to be totally absent as soon as modern observers came around. Google images reveals a lot of bear hunting happening on this peninsula, which is nowhere near as isolated as the cryptozoological legends claims.
The greatest failure of “Bergman’s Bear” as a cryptid is that the peninsula is already home to a huge subspecies of bear! Data on the Kamchatka Brown Bear (Ursus arctos beringianus) are hard to come by, but Revenko (1994) notably refers to them as some of the largest bears in Russia. Kistchinski (1972) claims that “extremely big bears” were common in the past, but wiped out due to overharvesting. Wood (1982) cites sources claiming weights as high as 685 kg (1510 lbs), however these appear to be poorly documented. Wood (1982) was of the unusual opinion that these large bears were an extinct subspecies, which is a far less likely explanation that the effects of heavy hunting.
In regards to the unusually coat, judging from photographs of the bears, there are a lot of variations and color ranges from light to dark and it appears to fur can be short or long in individuals. Despite his field experience, I’m skeptical of Bergman’s claim of the short coat being a highly distinctive trait. Some of the large bears taken by hunters do indeed seem to have fairly short, dark fur, so perhaps Bergman somehow failed to observe the full range of variation for the species.
So even if there was a pattern of very large individuals having short, dark fur, what does that actually mean? Species do not consist solely of very large (presumed) males, so if there was a genuinely unknown species or subspecies of bear, surely people would have been noticing females and cubs that looked a bit different as well. So the most likely explanation is that, if the described condition is accurate, it occurred within a species. Perhaps very large or old males of this species just have short dark fur for some reason (maybe hormones or… something). Perhaps in some areas, this phenotype gave an advantage in certain environments and allowed some males to grow to their fullest potential. But, since the sample size is extremely small and reliant on second-hand account and anecdotes, the most likely explanation is that there is no pattern at all.
One thing I love about cryptozoology is that, when done right, it’s a good way to discuss real concepts in zoology. I think belief in Bergman’s bear is a failure to realize that the scientific literature is riddled with purportedly distinct species. This doesn’t mean that each of those purported species is a mystery beast hiding from modern observers. In actuality, they’re just variants. Bears seem unusually prone to this type of apophenia; for Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) in North America, no fewer than 96 species were proposed — 86 by one C. H. Merriam — and in the Old World an additional 271 names were granted (Hall 1984). It is surreal to read works written by people who earnestly believe North America has dozens of species of bear which sometimes overlap considerably in range but do not interbreed (e.g. Mills 1919). These animals are still real, and heck, it could be possible that there really are geographical variations in traits like claw length and coat color; the problem is, these are just exceedingly minor traits which are unsuitable for determining species status. Describing new species is more rigorous today — for the most part — and it really helps when there are numerous morphological traits backed up with molecular evidence. The notion that Bergman’s Bear is a distinct entity is a failure to understand variation, how species vary, and the extremely low threshold for what early observers considered a distinct species or “type”.
Bergman, S. (1936) Observations on the Kamchatkan Bear. Journal of Mammalogy 17(2) 115–120.
Bille, M. (1995) Rumors of Existence.
Hall, E. (1984) Geographic variation among Brown and Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos) in North America. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History 13 1–16. Available.
Haywood, A. (2010) Siberia: A Cultural History.
Kistchinski, A. (1972) Life history of the brown bear (Ursus arctos L.) in northeast Siberia. IN: Bears, their biology and management. Available.
Mills, E. (1919) The Grizzly: Our Greatest Wild Animal. Available.
Revenko, I. (1992) Brown Bear (Ursus arctos piscator) reaction to humans on Kamchatka. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. 9(1) 107-108. Available.
Shuker, K. (1997) From Flying Toads to Snakes with Wings.
Wood, G. (1982) The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats.
¹ The Иркуйем (Irkuyem/Irkuiem/Irquiem) is described as being an enormous white bear standing four and a half feet (1.37 m) at the withers, weighing a ton and has a small head, long limbs, narrow body and… brace yourselves… an unusual gait involving putting its forelegs out first followed by its hindlegs, making it look like a giant caterpillar (Shuker 1997). This could be based on garbled reports of Polar Bears, but since most of the information appears to have come from Pravda, I think it could be safely regarded as useless nonsense.
One surprisingly influential Cryptozoology.com article claims “Kainyn-Kutho” is another synonym meaning “God-Bear”… but I don’t understand how that translation works. Perhaps relevantly, Siberia: A Cultural History states that Kamchatkan Brown Bears are usually given supernatural or god-like qualities.
² See Vårgal and Taeger (2011) for a fascinating overview of his life and photographs from the Kamchatkan expedition. He had some eccentric opinions about Atlantis and a reputation as an “odd character” but he seems to be a generally well-regarded figure aside from that.
³ A distressingly high number of sources are under the impression that Bergman gave his bear the scientific name Ursus arctos piscator. This is completely and utterly WRONG. This name existed 81 years before Bergman ever used it — and it is still used as a synonym for Kamchatkan bears today.