Friday, June 24, 2016

Bears and hybrids and more bears

There are few animals more interesting than bears. I've written several times before about them, but I can never resist coming back and looking for some new tidbits. 

They are smart: a bear in California learned how to bounce on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle and pop the doors open.  They are strikingly human-like when de-furred: some Native Americans considered them a brother animal to man. They can be huge: a modern polar bears weighing up to a metric ton are on record, and the biggest brown bears (Ursus arctos) of the Kenai Peninsula and Kamchatka, reach well over half that.  (Mammologist C. Hart Merriam once classified 86 species of brown bears: We now consider them to be one species with just four subspecies). Speaking of grizzlies, everyone who loves them should read Ernest Thomson Seton's Biography of a Grizzly, originally published in 1900: in 1970, it was the basis for a very loose Disney adaptation called King of the Grizzlies.  
A cage-fat male brown (Kodiak)  bear named Goliath, who was born in Alaska and died (in a small concrete-floored cage) in a roadside museum/zoo in New Jersey in 1991, reportedly weighted 900kg, which sounds suspiciously on the high side even for a captive. A bear named Clyde who died in the Dakota Zoo in 1987 was listed at over 900kg and was claimed by the zoo director to have hit an astonishing 1,090kg.  Here in my hometown of Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo reported in 1955 the death of a male Kodiak weighing 757kg.   
John "Grizzly" Adams' biggest-ever captured bear, a California grizzly named Samson, was weighed at 685kg.  A Kodiak killed in the wild in 1894 was reportedly weighed in at 751 kg.  Estimated weights of over 700kg have been reported for a bear killed at Cold Bay, Alaska, in 1948 and for a another Alaskan bear killed in 1916. 
The extinct North American short-faced (and long-legged) bear (Arctodus simus) was taller than any known bear - pretty close to horse-height when standing on all fours, and there's a cave in Missouri where an individual left claw marks 4.5m off the floor.  Its  earlier, but much bulkier, South American relative Arctotherium angustidens might have weighed 1,600 kg or more.  Indeed, this animal was probably the biggest mammalian land carnivore of all time: it must have terrified everything in its world.
Some mysteries about bears have been solved. We know now the long-puzzling individual called MacFarlane's bear was a grizzly, not a new species. The astonishing-looking golden moon bears have been confirmed as a real phenomenon, but a variant of a known species, the Asiatic black bear. There's still some fuzziness (if you'll pardon the pun) about classification of the smaller Asian bears, and the gigantic, big-footed solid black oddity known to cryptozoologists as Bergman's bear is not quite ready to be filed away with other Kamchatcan brown bears (U. a. piscator), but there are no definite specimens.
Then there are bears that ain't, as an old hunter might say. In 1998, Reinhold Messner published a book identifying the yeti, or chemo as his Tibetan associates called it,  as a new species, or a subspecies of the brown bear. This bear, the mountaineer alleged,  habitually walks upright (standing up to 2.7m) travels by night and communicates by whistling.  The book, though, includes pictures of quite ordinary-looking brown bears Messner was told were chemos. British geneticist Bryan Sykes took a look at the yeti/bear question by testing DNA from alleged yetis and from bears. After a great deal of hype and confusion, though, it appears he didn't make any discoveries about new bears or about yetis.  
One thing  that is happening in the world of bears isn't a good sign. As climate change allows the brown bear to forage further north but limits the ice cover polar bears use, it's essentially squeezing the two species' ranges closer together.  Sometimes this results in war, sometimes in love. The first grizzly-polar hybrid confirmed in the wild was shot in 2006 and another in 2010. A suspected hybrid killed in May 2016 was identified as an extremely light-colored "blond" grizzly bear. Such grizzly bears have also been spotted in Alaska.  The polar bear is not endangered, but it's getting less healthy as a species, thanks to the attrition caused by habitat loss. 

The paw of a polar bear attests to the animal's size (NOAA)

A hybrid sun bear/Asiatic black bear, meanwhile, has turned up in Cambodia. It's hardly surprising. It's not so much a case of the habitats being compressed, as in North America, but the sheer brutal annihilation of Southeast Asian wildlife   - described heartbreakingly in Sy Montgomery's book Search for the Golden Moon Bear -  means bears of any species may get desperate for mates. 

 (Gary Galbreath, who led the team describing the hybrid, coauthored Moon Bear. I have an admiration for Dr. Galbreath, though we've never met: I don't know how he or other scientists deal with sadness on such a scale while fighting long odds to save species. Cryptozoologists also know Galbreath for his proposed sei whale identification of the famous 1848 Daedalus sea serpent. Also for his 2006 paper arguing the kouprey, the largest land mammal discovered in the 20th century, was a  feral hybrid rather than a new species. He's a prolific guy.) 

So concludes this week's visit with the bears.  There's a lot more to discuss abotu them, and a lot we still don't know. They have a lot to teach us - if we can keep them alive.  

A few bear references:
Day, David. 1990. The Doomsday Book of Animals. New York: Viking Press.
Domico, Terry. 1988. Bears of the World. New York: Facts on File.
Galbreath, Gary, et. al. 2008. "An Apparent Hybrid Bear From Cambodia." Ursus 19:85-86
Goodwin, George. 1946. "Inopinatus the Unexpected," Natural History, November.
Halfpenny, James. 1996. “Tracking the Great Bear: Mystery Bears,”  Bears, Spring.
Montgomery, Sy.  2003.  Search for the Golden Moon Bear.  New York: Simon and Schuster.
Wood, Gerald L. 1983. The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats.  Sterling Publishing Co.
Woolford, Riley. 2007. "White Black Bears and Blond Grizzlies: Alaska Bears Wear Coats of Many Colors," Alaska Fish & Wildlife News, September.  
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