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.


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.


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.

18 thoughts on “The Patriarchal Bear”

  1. The name Merriam shows up in paleontologyquite a bit: is (e.g.) Teratornis merriami named in hs honour?

    In more recent literature, it seems to be a convention that the “systematic” part of a paper has a paragraph on “etymology,” which explains the thinking behind the name chosen for a new taxon: the two pages where he describes new genus Vetularctos doesn’t, alas, have such a section. Any idea why he chose the name? Maybe a combination of “being an ancient lineage” and having white hair?

    1. Apparently it was named after a Professor John C. Merriam:

      Click to access p0048-p0048.pdf

      I’d guess “vetul” has something to do with “ancient” but… I’m really not clear. I’m especially curious why George Goodwin wrote “Velularctos [sic]” — I’m guessing Merriam didn’t construct the name very well? I really wish I took a Latin course.

  2. Looking through the 1918 paper, I noticed this gem that I think sums up the issues with Merriam’s work:

    Another surprising result is the discovery that Admiralty Island in Southeastern Alaska appears to be inhabited by no less than five distinct species, each of which is obviously related to and representative of an adjacent mainland species… In this connection it is well to remember that the breadth of the strait separating Admiralty Island from the main­land at its narrowest point does not exceed 5 miles.

  3. I was also interested to notice that Merriam refers in a footnote to a supposedly unidentifiable Ursus saribur that was published 27 years earlier than U. horribilis. Going by its type locality (‘from the region of Canada’), this would almost certainly be a senior synonym of the latter under current classification, though it would almost certainly qualify as a nomen oblitum.

    1. “The description of the said animal is similar to other strange cases”

      No… it isn’t. The original sources made it abundantly clear this is a small, lightly-colored female grizzly with low cusps on some of its teeth. The notion that it is a surviving Arctodus or what have you is a misunderstanding of old, overzealous taxonomy combined with unrelated stories about large bears.

      Cryptozoology is often just zoology through a filter of mythology. So of *course* it’s going to implode when subjected to the harsh scrutiny of… reading the original sources. I don’t mind the mythological approach (I loved the Cryptozoologicon), but I do mind when it’s being presented as real or likely. I also think anecdotal evidence can be useful but… most people interpreting it are doing so in an extremely biased and careless way.

      Oh, it would be great for this skull to be properly re-examined so it could be determined how strange, if at all, those teeth were. It would be fun to know about its genetic ancestry, particularly to know if those Grizzly subpopulations are actually clades or not. So it’s still something of a mystery… but there’s no reason to go about thinking it’s something hyper-exotic when none of the available evidence indicates this.

      That is… one strange report. Well, it’s really more of a short story. Anecdotal evidence is, of course, unreliable, and that a 17 year gap between the encounter and writing down the sighting is troubling. Plus what kind of herpetologists says something like “It had these crazy ridges all over it’s body….like a reptile maybe?” — what is that? There’s no reason to think it has anything to do with Arctodus, which most likely looked like some sort of big Spectacled Bear.

  4. Kipunji, Chacoan peccary, Kouprey, Saola among others… It seems there is a trend in cryptozoology to discover animals that doesn’t seem to fit the modern wildlife…

    1. None of these change the status of MacFarlane’s Bear as a likely minor variant.

      “It seems there is a trend in cryptozoology to discover animals”

      *Has* a self-proclaimed cryptozoologist ever discovered anything? The only possibly example I can think of is Marcus van Roosmalen, however I’m not certain if he regards himself as a ‘cryptozoologist’… plus it several of his “new species” (manatee, peccary, tapir) do not appear to be valid anyways.

      1. Of course I agree with you concerning the bear for now.

        I am not aware of any successful cryptozoologists, though I read that Jeremy Wade used the word “cryptozoology” when it comes to looking for an ill-known fish. I guess the link made between zoology and the fortean circle is somewhat an embarrassment for zoologists IMO. I still cross the fingers for one finding something nonetheless, at least Dr. Karl Shuker. Maybe also people should less focus on the archetypal cryptids like Bigfoot and move on to more obscure critters, wishes paradoxically are more prone to be discovered…

  5. At least one web-site (I think it’s at a U of Cal location) explicitly warns us that JC Merriam and CH Merriam “should not be confused.” I will try in the future…
    Looking them both up on Wikipedia, it seems that they were not closely related.

    JC is a MUCH better person for fossil vertebrates to be named after: he was one of the founders of palaeontology at UC Berkeley (the museum of palaeontology there was apparently founded in part with gives from a wealthy student whom he had inspired with an interest in the subject!), and was the main figure in the early investigation of La Brea.

    (Thanks for answering my question. My Latin is rudimentary and I wasn’t familiar with the stem vetul- It is somehow related to the vet- in veteran, and if I were David Marjanovi´c I might be able to tell you a story about the etymological connections.)

  6. I’m not David Marjanović, but Lat. vetulus indeed means old. Formally it’s a dimunitive of vetus, also “old”, the stem of which is veter-, whence “veteran”.

    The only thing linguistically objectionable about Vetularctos that I can think of is that it mixes Latin and Greek roots, which traditionally is considered bad form – Dart, somewhat famously, got flak for coining the similarly mixed compound Australopithecus. But nowadays it has to be considered accepted practice.

    1. It’s an interesting idea that proboscidean fossils may have been interpreted as huge bears… a bit hard to demonstrate though. I don’t quite follow “this bear” since, uh, the article doesn’t make that conclusion.

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