Merriam’s Bear

A cute, fluffy _Vetularctos inopinatus_ wandering the Arctic Archipelago in an alternate universe.For reference I used tier-fotos.eu and Wikipedia Commons for the bear; for the landscape, I used Wikipedia Commons, arctic-atlas.org and nature.ca

I’m afraid this will make very little sense without reading The Patriarchal Bear.

Let’s pretend in some alternate universe, C. H. Merriam did not Fail Taxonomy Forever and North America has scores of species of bears roaming around. It’s probably the universe next door to the Cryptozoologicon. One of the bears is something special; a small tremarctine from the Canadian Arctic, just one of two survivors from a once-mighty lineage. Unlike the bear of our universe — which was just an immature female Grizzly with low cusps on some of its teeth — this ‘Vetularctos inopinatus‘ actually has tremarctine traits such as a short and deep skull, large molars, lateral orbits, et cetera. And just because, let’s say this specimen was actually a large male that wandered a few hundred kilometers south from its normal distribution in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

But which tremarctine is it? Arctodus simus was present in eastern Beringia and may have had a competitive exclusive relationship with Brown Bears (Barnes et al. 2004). So perhaps Merriam’s Bear could be a dwarfed population of A. simus forced into a marginal habitat after the re-invasion of Brown Bears. But, eh, Surviving Arctodus is pretty played out. In our universe, the extant Spectacled Bear descended from the North American Tremarctos floridanus in the late Pleistocene or early Holocene (García-Rangel 2012, citing various); the biogeography of that split is still sufficiently mysterious for me to speculate, hey, why not have a sister species of the Spectacled Bear move north after the Last Glacial Maximum? Reclassifying ‘Vetularctos inopinatus‘ as Tremarctos inopinatus also opens up lots of interesting ecological possibilities.

Spectacled Bears are omnivores, mainly feeding on fruits and leaves, but they also have adaptations for preying on small prey (García-Rangel 2012, citing various). Feeding heavily on palms, bromeliads and fruits is probably going to be out of the question for Merriam’s Bear, unfortunately. Merriam’s Bear is also not much larger than Spectacled Bears — Merriam described the skull with a basal length of 26.8 cm, Spectacled Bears have a maximum total skull length of 26.3 cm (García-Rangel 2012, citing various) — so perhaps a large individual would be around the 200 kg mark. While still pretty big, this could make macropredation a rare affair and opens up the possibility of predation from Polar Bears, but less mass to support could make survival in a harsh landscape more plausible. 

Could a bear even survive in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago? Barren Ground Grizzlies are typically thought to be absent from that area, but they have been recorded as far north as Melville Islandsuch vagrant bears have apparently fed on pinnipeds and (female and juvenile) polar bears, and could presumably eat sedges, caribou, and muskoxen as well (Doupé et al. 2007). Perhaps Merriam’s bear could feed heavily on hares and lemmings and have adaptations for taking a wide variety of the plants which still grow that far north. It still sounds like a pretty rough existence and I imagine Merriam’s Bear was one of the very last of its kind.

So, to be clear, this is all just speculative biology. I’m surprised that creating a plausible-ish scenario worked out as well as it did. It was certainly easier than for Bergman’s Bear, which doesn’t even exist in this bear-heavy alternate universe. Speaking of which, I should probably take a break from cryptid bears for a while.

References:

Barnes, I. et al. (2004) Dynamics of Pleistocene Population Extinctions in Beringian Brown Bears. Science 295 2267–2270. Available.

Doupé, J. et al. (2007) Most Northerly Observation of a Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) in Canada: Photographic and DNA Evidence from Melville Island, Northwest Territories. Arctic 60(3) 271–276.

García-Rangel, S. (2012) Andean bear Tremarctos ornatus natural history and conservation. Mammal Review 42(2) 85–119.

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The Patriarchal Bear

In late June 1864, two Inuit hunters in the Mackenzie Basin killed what Mair & MacFarlane (1908) called a “Richardson’s Barren Ground Bear—Ursus richardsoni“. These days they’re known as ‘Barren Ground Bears’ and considered a subpopulation of Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos horribilis (e.g. Edwards et al. 2008). Mair & MacFarlane (1908) mentioned no unusual morphology, size or coloration is regards to the bear, only describing how it nearly mauled one of the hunters. Then in 1918, C. H. Merriam described the specimen as a new species and genus, the Patriarchal Bear, Vetularctos inopinatus. Whaaaaat?!

Merriam (1918) specified the type specimen was collected on 24 June 1864 from Lac Rendez-vous, Northwest Territories, Canada¹. The preserved pelt was described as “buffy whitish” in general with brownish coloration at the extremities; this Grizzly from Denali and another from North Slope fit Merriam’s long, rambling description almost perfectly. Merriam described the skull as being small² and lacking almost any wear on the teeth, and so interpreted it as a near-adult female. I have no idea where “Patriarchal Bear” came from. Merriam (1918) noted the skull was overall “like that of Ursus” but felt the teeth were so unusual, he speculated the bear had a “rather ancient line of descent” and affiliations with Spectacled Bears and Arctotherium. Whaaaaaaat?!?!

C. H. Merriam does not appear to have figured or photographed his “Vetularctos inopinatus” anywhere. This really sucks. The whole description is a long, rambling qualitative description of differences that are probably laughably minuscule. Bear with me here, this is going to be like pulling teeth. Merriam felt the key reasons for attaching “Vetularctos” to those tremarctines were as follows: the lingual (“inner”) cusps on the first and second upper molars were reduced or suppressed; the second lower molar had both inner and outer cusps that were reduced or suppressed, and also lacked a re-entrant angle and notch on the outer side. This comparative illustration of bear teeth proved invaluable and — this sort of analysis is probably above my pay grade — despite Merriam’s wording, it seems that these differences are rather subtle. Damningly, Merriam (1918) states that aside from these traits, the teeth of the Patriarchal Bear and the tremarctines have “little in common”. I think it’s time to talk about Mr. C. H. Merriam.

Mini-article time! The skull up top is a Spectacled Bear (from Figueirido & Soibelzon 2009) and the bottom one is a Grizzly (from Elliot 1901). Figueirido and Soibelzon note many distinct traits in tremarctines: their skulls are deeper and wider, the molars are larger, the zygomatic arches and glenoid fossae are larger and more developed and the orbits are larger, rounder, and more laterally placed. Merriam notes precisely none of these traits in his purportedly new bear.

C. H. Merriam was surely one of the most extreme taxonomic splitters ever. One of his publications was titled Descriptions of thirty apparently new grizzly and brown bears from North America, and this was early in his career. He eventually described 84 species of Brown Bears from North America (Hall 1984). Today there are three subspecies. Merriam’s approach to taxonomy is totally alien to what is accepted today. He also appeared to have no conception of balance of evidence or parsimony. His scenario was essentially that, on the basis of really subtle dental traits, a tremarctine converged almost perfectly with Brown Bears, enough so to totally fool hunters and naturalists. Oh, and it lived in the same area as Brown Bears. And was known from a single specimen. The problems with his scenario should have been incredibly obvious to anyone who bothered to read it. Oh, it would certainly be nice if the skull were re-examined — and preferably in a venue other than a questionably-edited cable TV show — but Merriam’s own description makes “slightly irregular Brown Bear” a good provisional identification. Even a Polar Bear hybrid is probably too exotic a hypothesis… but that’s really a story for another time.

Oh, and then cryptozoology comes in and things get stupid. Along with Bergman’s Bear, it’s not uncommon to see “MacFarlane’s” bear touted as, *gasp*, maybe a surviving Arctodus? I think every “mystery” bear inevitably turns into Arctodus in cryptozoological apocrypha. So who is to blame for this farce? I suspect it’s this 1946 article by George Goodwin; he takes Merriam’s bizarre phylogeny seriously, appears to think Tremarctos was an extinct giant (instead of… the opposite of that), concludes the Patriarchal Bear must have been a giant too, and then connects it to vague stories about big bears. Somebody down the line noticed that Tremarctos and Arctotherium were related to Arctodus and… that’s how cryptids are born. It’s all just fact-adverse, mystery-mongering bullshit about a non-mystery. And that’s why it’s so much fun.

Notes:

¹ Merriam (1918) reported the type locality as “Rendezvous Lake, northeast of Fort Anderson, Mackenzie”. This website shows the location of the old fort.

² With a basal length of 26.8 cm. In comparison, the skull of “Ursus horribilis” described by Merriam (1918) was 35.1 cm in basal length, and hey, that name actually held up! One of them was bound to stick.

References:

Edwards, M. et al. (2008) Using subpopulation structure for barren-ground grizzly bear management. Ursus 19(2) 91–104. Available.

Elliot, D. (1901) A Synopsis of the Mammals of North America and the adjacent seas. Available.

Figueirido, B. & Soibelzon, L. (2009) Inferring palaeoecology in extinct tremarctine bears (Carnivora, Ursidae) using geometric morphometrics. Lethaia 10.1111/j.1502-3931.2009.00184.x 

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.

Hillson, S. (2005) Teeth. Partially Available.

Mair, C. & MacFarlane, R. (1908) Through the Mackenzie BasinAvailable.

Merriam, C. (1918) Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America (genus Ursus) with description of a new genus, VetularctosNorth American Fauna 41. Available.

Bergman’s Bear

I want to try something different on this rebooted The Lord Geekington. I have nothing new to add to my discussion on Bergman’s Bear and Hyper-Splitting, but I also didn’t feel like I was quite done with it. Also, I recently got a drawing tablet.

So what is supposed to be going on here? This is a dubious speculative creature, so I wanted the illustration to feel anachronistic and naive. Trying to put my own inexperience to good use, in other words. I attempted to imitate the old yellowing maps in Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance MapsMedieval illustrations of bears, and Olaus Magnus all at once, although the result doesn’t really look much like any of those. 

I exaggerated the short hair purportedly covering Bergman’s Bear to the point where this bear hardly seems to have any. Like my shrink-wrapped bear, this is really an excuse for showing off the freakishly long legs bears have underneath that fuzz. The wrinkles may look familiar to aficionados of hairless oddballs. The long snout is an exaggeration of the morphology Kamchatkan Brown Bears already have; I’m imagining a short-haired animal could look similarly bizarre, but just in case, I’m imagining this is an animal with particularly extreme morphology. This feature was also something of a protest against the prehistoric-survivor-mongering Arctodus¹ hypothesis.

Unlike the Cryptozoologicon, I’m not clever enough to come up with a scenario where this can be a distinct species². The best I can manage is that, let’s see, maybe there was a subpopulation of bears that was extremely adept at exploiting salmon — or maybe marine mammals? —and for some reason insulated themselves with more fat than fur. The longish snout I gave it sorta hints at this, although Bergman and Malaise made no mention of such a feature. But anyways, this purportedly distinct animal is just a relic from the era where people were interpreting one bear species as hundreds; there is absolutely no reason to take it seriously as a potentially unknown animal. Just thought I should mention that again.

¹ Although Arctodus didn’t actually have a short face. Or long legs. The popular image of these animals is nearly mythologized as a cryptid.

² Well, it was recently discovered that Cave Bears were living in far Eastern Siberia… of course they were small… and hundreds of kilometers away from Kamchatka… and thousands of years in the past. Such inconveniences don’t really stop avowed prehistoric survivorists though.