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