Category Archives: Bears

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.

Bergman’s Bear and Hyper-Splitting

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”.

References:

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.

Notes:

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.