Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (January 2007)

Mystery Bears

Reprinted with permission from Rumors of Existence, Matthew A. Bille
1995, Hancock House Publishers, Surrey (B.C.) / Blaine (WA)

Macfarlane's Bear

In 1864, two Inuit hunters in Canada's Northwest Territories killed an "enormous" bear. Naturalist Robert MacFarlane obtained the bear's skin and skull, and shipped the remains to the Smithsonian Institution, but no one at the time realized how unusual this animal was.

Decades later, Dr. C. Hart Merriam found the evidence in storage in "the nation's attic" and took a closer look at it. He realized that MacFarlane's bear, a near-grown female, was something unique. Beyond the peculiar coat color, there were differences in the skull and teeth separating the animal from the grizzly (or brown) as well as all other living bears. Merriam thought the teeth showed characteristics similar to some prehistoric bruins, and he described the specimen in 1918 as a new species and genus, Vetularctos inopinatus, calling it the "patriarchal bear."

While there were Inuit stories about such strange-looking bears, no other hard evidence has turned up in the last 130 years. Suggestions concerning the origin of MacFarlane's bear include a freak grizzly, a grizzly-polar bear cross (something known from zoos, although not confirmed in the wild), or a surviving representative — maybe the very last — of an ancient breed.

A modern polar bear specialist, Dr. James Halfpenny, doubts the idea of a "throwback" grizzly but is open to the hybrid theory. Unfortunately, no one to date has properly compared the skull to that of a known hybrid. In the vaults of the Smithsonian, the evidence of this mystery still awaits a final solution.

 

The Kamchatka Giant Bear

There are two known species of giant bears in the world. One is the polar bear, an outsized specimen of which stood over eleven feet tall and weighed a reported 2200 pounds. The other is the brown bear, varieties of which are known as the grizzly, the Kodiak, the Peninsula, and the Kamchatka bear. As we have seen, the question of a third large bear, MacFarlane's, is still shrouded in uncertainty. 

Could there be yet a fourth? In 1920, Swedish zoologist Sten Bergman was shown the skin of what he suggested was a giant, black-furred variety of the Kamchatka bear. Dr. Bergman, who spent two years in Kamchatka studying the local wildlife, wrote that the specimen "far surpassed" any bearskin he had ever seen. Interestingly, the black bear's pelt was short-haired, unlike the long, shaggy coat of the normal Kamchatka bear. Bergman's report on the bear also included a description of an outsized pawprint, fourteen and a half inches by ten, and measurements of an equally outsized skull.

No specimens of this bear have been collected since Bergman wrote in 1936, so it is normally considered extinct. Still, in 1960, survey workers in Alberta, Canada found a valley inhabited by a huge strain of grizzly bears no one knew about. The bears in this isolated valley averaged a thousand pounds in weight, compared to 600 for the normal adult grizzly.

With this example in mind, should we dismiss the prospect of rediscovering Bergman's bear? Terry Domico, in his 1988 book Bears of the World, notes that much of the Kamchatka Peninsula has long been closed off for military reasons. He also reports that a former Soviet official who did have access recently told him the giant bears were still reported. 

Domico suggests the giants are a variant of the brown bears living on the Siberian mainland, but there is no way to arrive at a definitive classification without a specimen.

Does the black giant still survive? Or was Bergman's bear the last of an unsuccessful race? We know this awesome creature existed barely seventy years ago. The largest land carnivore on Earth may still be awaiting its rediscovery.

 

Sources:

Goodwin, George C. 1946. "Inopinatus the Unexpected," Natural History, November.
Day, David. 1990. The Doomsday Book of Animals. New York: Viking Press.
Domico, Terry. 1988. Bears of the World. New York: Facts on File.
Wood, Gerald L. 1977. Animal Facts and Feats. New York: Sterling Publishing Co.
Correspondence with Dr. James Halfpenny, “A Naturalist’s World,” www.tracknature.com.

This text may not be reprinted without permission of the author.

[BFR Editor's Note: The recent (2006) discovery of a polar-grizzly bear hybrid in the wild suggests that MacFarlane's bear would be worth further examination by an ursine specialist.]