Category Archives: Science

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.

The Third King

The basilosaurids are among the fossil animals I find most fascinating. Despite the suffix, this is a group of fossil whales in a very interesting phylogenetic position; they’re floating in between the points where whales became fully aquatic and the split between toothed and baleen whales. The phylogeny of this group has been undergoing major upheavals, so those used to simplified diagrams of whale evolution may find it surprising that Basilosauridae is a diverse side-branch rather than one or two transitional species. Discussing phylogeny can turn into an unreadable multi-paragraph slog, so I’ll try something different:

In Uhen (1998), Basilosauridae was a grade between protocetids and the extant toothed and baleen whales. Basilosaurus and Dorudon were distant relatives and the poorly-known Pontogeneus was considered valid (it’s a nomen nudum today)
Uhen (1998) didn’t resolve the positions of Ambulocetidae and Remingtonocetidae, however since they were recognized as separate groups in the discussion, I showed them as such. Basiloterus was not subjected to phylogenetic analysis, but considered a member of Basilosauridae, hence the uncertain placement.
Since Uhen (1998), the clade ‘Pelagiceti’ was recognized and includes all basilosaurids, toothed and baleen whales; ‘Neoceti’ includes only the toothed and baleen whales and their mysterious relatives. Kekenodon is not a new species, but was for a time considered a baleen whale. Ocucajea is new and while classified as a basilosaurid, seems to be a closer relative of modern whales. The rest of Basilosauridae has been substantially re-structured: perhaps most notably, Dorudon and Basilosaurus are sister taxa.
This phylogeny didn’t include remingtoncetids or ambulocetids, they were added since I wanted this to be an animation (turns out it doesn’t work so well with the airbrush, huh). Basiloterus was not analyzed and its position is unknown (but it seems to be a basal basilosaurid).

Okay, those are definitely paragraphs, but at least they’re small enough to be optional. So what is… The Third King? Some of its remains were previously known as Eocetus or “Eocetus(long story) and they were classified as protocetids less derived than Babiacetus.  In 2013, Gol’din & Zvonok argued the association with Eocetus was a mistake and moved the whales into Basilosauridae under the new name Basilotritus. That group now contains three lineages characterized by elongate vertebrae and large body size: Basilosaurus (“lizard king”), Basiloterus (“another king”) and now Basilotritus (“the third king”). I really hope this tradition continues¹.

Basilotritus is known from an astounding number of remains despite having been recognized for less than a year. Basilotritus wardii is known from the Early Bartonian of the United States and Basilotritus uheni — which has vertebrae about twice as large — is known from the Late Lutetian to Late Bartonian of Ukraine (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). There are additional “Basilotritus sp.” from Germany and the Ukraine and in Peru there is a comparatively small species with moderately elongate vertebrae that appears to be a related genus (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). It’s name had better start with Basil

Basilotritus sp. lumbar vertebrae and neural arch. From Gol’din et al. (2014)

In addition to the large size and elongate vertebra, Basilotritus has two rather unusual diagnostic traits: vertebrae with a pock-marked texture and layered bony tissue on the neural spines (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). The pock marks are the openings of vascular channels and are hypothesized to be related to the long-term growth of considerable bony tissue; the layers of bone are also apparently a result of this (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). Basilotritus then has a condition known as pachyostosis, which could allow it to be a good, long-distance swimmer at the expensive of speed and maneuverability (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). Pachyostosis is present in other basilosaurids, but apparently does not involve the vertebrae (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). 

There seems to have been something very strange happening with the growth and maturation of BasilotritusThe Basilotritus sp. pictured above has 5 growth layer groups — likely indicating an age of 5 years — and yet has unfused epiphyses on its cervical vertebrae, something that normally happens very early in the life of a whale (Gol’din et al. 2014). Gol’din et al. (2014) consider this a sign of paedomorphosis (along with the pachyostosis), although they are uncertain if Basilotritus rapidly reached a large size but didn’t reach skeletal maturity until later (like a baleen whale) or if it continued growing for nearly a couple decades (like an Orca). 

It’s astounding that cetaceans reached huge sizes so early in their history. I suspect that basilosaurids “experimented” with different growth strategies for reaching huge sizes and exploiting new niches. Despite their apparently unusual growth strategy, the Basilotritus species converged on some Neoceti in regards to the number of lumbars (11–13, depending on species) and the elongation occurring in the posterior thoracics and lumbars (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). In comparison, the huge Cynthiacetus was strange (non-elongate vertebrae, very numerous thoracics) and the leviathanic Basilosaurus was crazy weird (extreme elongation, numerous vertebrae, lumbar-like thoracics and caudals).

From Gol’din et al. (2014)

There’s more to Basilotritus than vertebrae; parts of ribs, innominate bones, sternum, scapula, hyoid, tympanic bulla and skull have been found (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013); but perhaps the most interesting are the teeth. This Basilotritus sp. from Ukraine has severely worn teeth, and in one molar the entire crown is almost worn off (Gol’din et al. 2014). This is the same individual as the previous picture, so it managed to do this in only 5 years, some of which it presumably spent nursing. A similar amount of wear occurs in Orcas that prey heavily on sharks, and it likely wasn’t a coincidence that this specimen of Basilotritus sp. was found with numerous shark teeth (Gol’din et al. 2014). Of course, it probably shouldn’t be assumed that all Basilotritus fed heavily on sharks, and perhaps like Orcas it was only practiced by one small sub-population for a small period of time.

So… fossil whales never cease to amaze. I can’t wait until this post is laughably outdated in a couple of years.


Gol’din, P. & Zvonok, E. (2013) Basilotritus uheni, a New Cetacean (Cetacea, Basilosauridae) from the Late Middle Eocene of Eastern Europe. Journal of Paleontology 87(2) 254–268.

Gol’din, P. et al. (2014) Basilotritus (Cetacea: Pelagiceti) from the Eocene of Nagornoye (Ukraine): New data on anatomy,ontogeny and feeding of early basilosaurids. Comptes Rendus Palevol. Doi : 10.1016/j.crpv.2013.11.002

Uhen, M. (1998) Middle to late Eocene basilosaurines and dorudontines. IN: The Emergence of Whales


¹ Basilosaurus drazindai is presently known from only one vertebrae with several significant differences from other Basilosaurus species as well as Basilotritus (Gol’din et al. 2013). Considering its age and the apparent close relationship between Basilosaurus and Dorudon, I think it’s very likely to be something… else. Other big, elongate vertebrae have been named “Platyosphys paulsonii“, “Platyosphys einori” and “Platyosphys sp.”, however they’re all lost or in poor condition and now considered nomen dubium (Gol’din et al. 2013). They could be members of the other Basil– lineages.

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”.


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 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.