Reminder: MQ on Mystery Bears

Posted by: Loren Coleman on September 24th, 2008

Matt Bille reminds folks: “I was told the mystery of MacFarlane’s bear will be solved tonight. So everyone tune in!”

MonsterQuest : Giant Bear Attack

Wednesday September 24th 2008 at 9PM Eastern / 8PM Central on HISTORY

Are big bears are getting more assertive and aggressive? In pre-historic times, giant bears weighed up to a ton and stalked early man. Listen as witnesses describe horrific bear attacks and take a look at unusual bear remains. The team journeys from Alaska to New Jersey to learn about bear activity and if hybridization or the next step in bear evolution could produce another crop of giant bears?

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

23 Responses to “Reminder: MQ on Mystery Bears”

  1. Eibhear responds:

    Pardon my ignorance, but what on earth is Macfarlane’s bear?

  2. HOOSIERHUNTER responds:

    Yeah I agree: what is MacFarlane’s bear? Besides, wouldn’t “a crop of giant bears” be a step back according to evolution theory? And how exactly could hybridization increase the size of bears?

  3. MattBille responds:

    MacFarlane’s bear is an enduring topic in cryptozoology: a bear shot in Canada in 1864 which was classified by mammologist C. Hart Merria as its own species and genus – Vetularctos inopinatus.

  4. MattBille responds:

    My quick review:

    Not bad. History Channel (or just History, as they now style themselves) has just run the “Giant Bear Attack” episode of MonsterQuest. It had the expected breathless reports and descriptions of bear attacks, but they kept the science in there. We were all a bit disappointed that MacFarlane’s bear from 1864 was proclaimed “definitely just a brown bear” by a modern expert. (It was described by Merriam as a 600-lb bear, so I’m not sure why the palentologist called that “very small” – it’s no monster, but a respectable bear.)

    The detour into a New Jersey town overrun with black bears seemed unnecessary, but overall, the show did a good job. They took out more of my interviews than they left in (normal practice, of course, with TV), but I thought most of my good points made it in.

    It was a fun experience from my point of view. I thought it humorous that the crew spent over a week in Alaska and saw only one bear of any size, but I was not along on that trip. I hope next time I am.

  5. Loren Coleman responds:

    Regarding size and hybridization, those interested may wish to read about heterosis, also known as hybrid vigor or outbreeding enhancement. Hybrid animals are often larger and more physically dominant.

  6. sschaper responds:

    Hybridization of breeds can indeed result in larger animals, such as ligers. I see that Loren discusses this in greater detail. It neither proves nor disproves neo-Darwinian evolution, as the instructions were already present.

    If I were to look for surviving arctodes, I don’t know that I would look where there was already a lot of vigorous competition, such as the Kenai. I would look in remote mountain and tundra regions that had smaller existing bears, and still had significant large game. I am reminded of the Colorado naturalist who found footprints that he said would have been arctodes, except that that was extinct, so it must have been bigfoot. I think of the Alaskan central valley, the mountains, the Yukon, Nunavut and so forth.

  7. MattBille responds:

    One more comment that comes to mind is that we did discuss subjects that did not make it into the program.

    We did talk about Bergman’s bear, the black giant reported from Kamchatka, and I’m surprised they did not use that given how spectacular the animal is reported to be.

    We also talked about the irkutiem, the odd white bear reported from Siberia, and the golden moon bear, a striking color variant of the Asian black bear unknown to science until recently.

    Debbie Martyr in Sumatra recently wrote me to say the locals believe the sun bear is actually two types with differing appearances and appetites. So there’s still some mystery out there.

  8. Sordes responds:

    The only case of natural hybridization I know is between the brown bear and the polar bear. There are also a lot of other cases with other species known from zoos. I would be really interested about the hybrid vigour of hybrids between polar and brown bears. Some of them were kept in zoos untill they were adult, and some of them even did reproduce again without any problems, but there was no massiv heterosis effect as seen for example in ligers, possibly because they are still too closely related.

    The evolutionary lines of polar and brown bears separated only a very short time ago, possibly only about 100-200.000 years ago. The modern polar bears evovled very quickly among strong evolutionary pressures into the modern form. Even ice-age polar bears had still more brown bear traits (for example lesser sharp teeth) than modern polar bears. For this reason polar bears have more genetic similarities with some populations of brown bears than some brown bears have with other brown bears of distant populations (note that Ursus arctos is one of the most widespread terretrial mammals on earth).

    But I doubt that a hybridization between polar and brown bear would result in some kind of monster polar bear like Ursus maritimus tyrannus, the only bear which possibly reached weights of around 1 ton regularly.

  9. dogu4 responds:

    How about an occasional appearance of a defect in the genetic instructions that produces myostatin? I recall reading in this very blog not too long ago about this occuring in greyhounds, and we know the defect is also occasionally reported (and exploited) in some strains of beef cattle. If this occurred in a bear it would result in a freakishly bulky beast, though not in any way a seperate species. I think enthusiasts are guilty sometimes of confusing morphology with the quintessential quality of a species, where from a genetic standpoint it’s just another trait which may or may not have some advantage that it can confer on the population in which it occurs.

  10. cryptidsrus responds:

    That gigantic bear that was shot in 2001 in Alaska by the young man seemd to suggest a very strong case for some sort of Gigantic Bear running around. Overall, a good show.

  11. Sordes responds:

    You mean probably the photos of the allegedly monstrous bear which circulated during the net some years ago. The bear was in fact very large, but not as large as you could often read, and it looked much bigger as a result of forced perspective. You can read the background story and see photos which show the actual size much better here.

  12. mystery_man responds:

    Hybrid vigor can indeed cause larger or physically dominant individuals, but I think it must be remembered that hybrids are not always improved versions of both parent species.

    There tends to be a widespread idea that hybrids are always healthier and more robust than the parent species, but this is simply not necessarily true. Hybrids can display a variety of problems, both genetic and behavioral. Indeed, the ligers that have already been mentioned, as well as tigons, both show increased susceptibility to certain cancers as well as decreased life spans. Pronounced behavioral problems can also be present in ligers since lions are social animals and tigers are solitary, which can cause an innate confusion and mental problems in the hybrid individual. Behavioral problems are also prominent in wolf/dog hybrids. It is also a myth that hybrids are always larger than the parent species, and in fact some hybrids, such as the tigon, are actually smaller, displaying dwarfism.

    Rather than causing larger and stronger animals, hybridization can often result in diminished fitness.

  13. Sordes responds:

    In some hybrids the animals live even for a very long time; mules for example are extremely hardy and have a very strong physical constitution. Sometimes you get offspring which is larger and healthier than the parents, sometimes (especially when the parents are too distantly related) they are smaller and lesser healthier and sometimes they show nothing special. In the case of hybrids between brown and polar bears there seems to be no truely visible hybrid vigour based on heterosis effects.
    BTW, hybridization is much more common than many people think. It is used even for a lot of fish-, reptile- and bird-species. Hybrid falcons for example are very common among falconers.

  14. mystery_man responds:

    MatteBille- It’s interesting that you mentioned Bergman’s bear because that is one case that always comes to mind whenever McFarlane’s bear is brought up. It is surprising that they wouldn’t use that since it was indeed a spectacular find considering the existence of the skin which was examined by Bergman as well as the huge footprints that were also found. The Irkuiem you mentioned is also intriguing because it was reported to have such a strange appearance. It had forelegs much longer than the hindlegs, with a bulge of fat near the rear that reached down nearly to the ground and gave it its namesake. Irkuiem means “trousers pulled down”.

    Another interesting cryptid bear I remember hearing about was the giant polar bears of Alaska. If I remember correctly, one was even shot sometime in the 40s and its feet were different enough to discount the possibility of it being a freakishly large polar bear or albino Kodiak bear. I wonder what connection these bears could have to the MacFarlane’s bear?

    Sordes- I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Ursus maritimus tyrannus was the ONLY bear known to regularly reach one ton in weight. Arctodus simus was known to reach around that weight as well and is regarded as the largest bear to ever live, weighing 1,600 to 1,900 pounds and standing one and a half meters at the shoulder.

  15. dogu4 responds:

    This is very interesting. I do wonder whether hybridization can’t eventually make contributions to populations into which they might back-breed and eventually lead to new species…horizontal gene transfer used to be recognized only in microbes but as we learn more about molecular biology it appears that it’s not all that cut and dry, but rather a spectral smear of traits whose expressions are the result of some pretty complex interractions within their developemental environment.

  16. Sordes responds:

    mystery_man, please read my comment in the post “MQ: Short-Faced Bear Spoiler” where I wrote about the common misbelief that Arctodus was a super-sized 1 ton-predator.
    You should especially looked at the size comparisons to humans and compare the body size (not the shoulder height) with large polar and brown bears.

  17. mystery_man responds:

    Sordes- I’m aware of the arguments that Arctodus simus was not as massive as has been commonly stated.

    I also think that you make a good point that when considering the size of the animal, one must look at the overall mass rather than just the height. Arctodus simus had limbs that were longer and more slender, which suggests that they are not really the “bulldog bears” they’ve been made out to be. It is also a good point that looking at the largest individuals is not the best way to get a good average size estimate. I may have been to quick to comment on that. I also think size dimorphism is a factor, but most living bears display this already, so of course this is taken into account with Arctodus simus. It is not much different from modern bears as far as sexual dimorphism is concerned.

    Perhaps the bear did not routinely reach weights of one ton, but the point I was trying to make is that with its long legs and estimated to weigh in at 600 or 700 kg, it was still undeniably a huge and intimidating looking bear. You seem to be saying that Arctodus simus was not very large at all, but the large male specimens would be larger than the largest polar bear recorded, which I believe was around 660 kg or so if memory serves. Maybe not REGULARLY reaching a ton, but certainly big, and not able to be written off as insignificant in the size department I would say.

    I think the debate on whether Artodus simus was a predator or a scavenger is also interesting. I also tend to think it was a predator, and it was certainly a meat eater due to the analysis of bones, skull morphology, and dentition, but there is actually some interesting research I’ve seen to suggest the scavenger hypothesis.

    First of all, one of the things brought up is the long limbed, lighter bones shown in Arctodus simus. This would suggest an animal suited to running down prey, yet its mass was likely too great to make it very effective in this area. Over a certain weight, it starts to become inefficient to have extra mass, which will slow the predator down. This makes it hard to see Arctodus simus as a fleet footed predator as has been suggested by some. Second, the skeletal structure of Arctodus simus apparently doesn’t seem to show the articulation necessary for making quick turns, which would be necessary for an animal chasing down other megafauna. So perhaps it was a brutish hunter taking down mammoths and such with sheer force? Maybe, but we’ve already established that it was not incredibly solidly built and probably too light boned for this sort of task. Besides, those long legs don’t really suggest an ambush hunter to me, and it didn’t live in a habitat suited for that kind of hunting anyway.

    So what we have is a meat eating animal that was maybe not very well suited to hunting in its particular habitat. One of the ideas I’ve seen suggested is that the morphology of Arctodus simus suggests it was a pacer, moving both right legs forward, then both left legs forward together. Elephants move in the same way. It is not as fast, but very energy efficient, a good mode of locomotion for stamina rather than short bursts of speed necessary in a predator. It’s a good mode of locomotion for a scavenger prowling long distances for carcasses to feed on. The long legs may have been to gain a high position to sniff out kills and look out across the land, as well as to intimidate other predators away from their kills.

    I don’t know if I agree with these hypotheses, and paleontology is not really my field, but it is interesting to consider I think.

  18. mystery_man responds:

    Sordes- Sorry, I was wrong. I checked it out and the largest polar bear recorded apparently was closer to 1,000 kg. Wow. Anyway, Arctodus simus was still a big bear, if not the overall largest ever. This is a great discussion. I love sharing views with intelligent people on these sorts of topics and learning new things where I can.

  19. mystery_man responds:

    Sordes- I’ve taken some time to look into this topic because it is very interesting to me and I am always looking to learn more about different scientific topics. I wanted your opinion on a few things since you do seem to know your stuff about prehistoric bears.

    From what I can tell, the size estimates for Arctodus simus (the largest subspecies of course) seem to still be very much debatable. Various reputable sources and journals (and I’m not talking about Wikipedia here) that I have been able to find stand by the estimates that these bears, while granted only rarely reaching one ton, routinely matched or surpassed the larger specimens of extant bears in mass. This is all of course based on equations based on long bone dimensions compared with the body mass ratios of modern bears, but the figures are still interesting to me. While one could argue that Arctodus simus had different body proportions from modern bears and therefore these methods aren’t necessarily accurate, does that really necessarily mean that it was a lot smaller than previously thought? These equations are a reasonably good way to get mass estimates (although not always totally reliable). Even considering the Arctodus simus had a smaller body in relation to its leg length, would the findings of examination of the bones point to something smaller when they appear to be geared towards supporting with more mass, perhaps caused by heavy muscle? I’m not trying to argue, mind you. It’s an honest question.

    While there could be an exaggeration involved with calculating the size of the creature, it does not seem to me from what I’ve been able to see that it is a foregone conclusion or that the large estimates of Arctodus simus are a “misbelief”. The arguments for a smaller bear seem to be just as speculative. Considering that we do not have a living specimen to study, we can only work with the fossils to the best of our ability, such as looking at morphology and long bones, and while these may have been done on specimens in the upper size range, they still point towards something quite large. The actual size of Arctodus simus still seems open to discussion. Any thoughts on this?

    Like I said, I am not a paleontologist and don’t claim to know a whole lot on prehistoric bears other than what I’ve learned from books, but I do happen to be a scientist and teacher so I am very interested to learn more and exchange ideas on this.

  20. Sordes responds:

    Thank you for the interesting discussion and your open-minded comments mystery_man!
    To come at first to the size of Arctodus again, I have to say that weight estimations based on single parametres alone are really not always a sure way to get right dates. A lot of extinct animals had massive differences in later estimations of their size, some were much bigger than thought (like Thylacoleo), and some were much smaller (like the giant rodent which was discoverd at South america some time ago). In the case of Arctodus we have an animal which we can compare with living species comparably easily (it is much harder if you deal with animals which have no true living analoges like the giant theropods). In the whole Arctodus was just a bear, with the main difference that it had very long legs. This long legs make it looking very big, but if you look really only at the actual body size, the estimations of 1000kg seems extremely hard to believe. Here are two great reconstructions by Carl Buel which show medium sized specimens with shoulder height of around 1,5-1,6m, here and here.

    They don´t really look that big, and there is really no way their mass could be at least close to 1 ton. They are roughly in the size and weight range of big grizzlies. Actually such shoulder heights were even recorded for brown bears, but as they have much shorter limbs in proportion, they were doubtless much heavier at this height.

    Another factor is that Arctodus was more slender than brown bears. Brown bears have extremely strong limbs and can lift even heavy rocks or burrow in hard soil or crush wood to find food. The muscles they need to do this are not at the limbs alone, but have also a base at the torso, which is extremely stocky too.

    The direct comparison between an Arctodus with record shoulder height and a big polar bear I posted before (or a big brown bear) shows clearly that there is no way that Arctodus was heavier than those extanct carnivores. And for a better comparison it is surely good to look at living animals which are actually in the 1000kg range like this giant bull.

    If you look again at the comparison of a record Arctodus and a human you can easily see that the difference is mass is very obvious (see here).

    To come again at the way of life Arctodus had, I have to say that this is really not easy to give an definitive answer. First of all I highly doubt that it was a specialized scavenger. This way of life is extremely unlikely for a big terrestrial carnivore. If you look at the two only carnivores which eat mainly carrion, the brown and the striped hyena, you will see that they are neither very big nor very aggressive or mean animals. They don´t steal prey from other predators (only from very small ones like jackals perhaps), but eat only the remains of carcasses of other predators prey or of animals which died in another way. They have very strong and bone breaking teeth, and they are often worn down up to the dentine. The carcassials of Arctodus were much smaller in comparison and don´t show this wear and abrasion. And even brown and small hyenas hunt sometimes small to medium sized prey and eat also a lot of other things including insects, eggs, some fruits and even feces. But even if Arctodus was not the 1000kg monster it was still very big and needed a lot of food. It was hardly able to life alone on carrion, especially with competitors like the giant and in packs living american lion. If an animal would be specialzed to eat only carrion, it would be highly vulnerable to environmental changes. Lions eat really a lot of stolen carrion, but even given the fact that they live in extremely prey-animal richt regions and the enormous strength which enables them to steal prey from nearly every other terrestrial carnivore, they still have to hunt. Even spotted hyenas which were for a long time thought to be mainly scavengers are very successfull hunters, which kill in some regions even more prey for themeselves than lions.
    Most of the traits which are often named for scavengers are actually very unclear. Does a good sense of smell indicate a scavenger? Modern bears and wolves have an extremely good sense of smell but are no scavengers. Lions eat much more carrion and have not such a big nose. Do strong jaws indicate a scavenging behavior? Again lions for example are not able to crush bones, except very small ones, and komodo dragons for example have a bit force which is only as strong as those of a cat, but they are still able to consume complete carcasses. Wolves and spotted hyenas have strong jaws and bone-crushing teeth, and they are able to consume nearly 100% of a carcass, but both are good hunters which benefit also from the ability to consume 100% of their own prey. Does long legs indicate a carrion-searching way of life? Not really I would say, a lot of modern carnivores regularly walk very long distances within a very short time, even brown bears with their comparably short legs.
    In the whole I highly doubt that Arctodus was a scavenger, but I can´t still not say in which way it actually lived.

  21. mystery_man responds:

    Sordes- Excellent perspectives and info on the size of Arctodus. Thank you. I’ve read so many differing views on this matter that it is hard to get any sort of straight answer. I know my extant bears, but I’m a little rusty on prehistoric ones, so the info you provided is much appreciated. A few things, though. The reconstructions are very interesting, but remember that reconstructions can be inaccurate as well. Often even with skeletons, we are not sure just how massive an animal really was and estimates of appearance can change. I also wonder about the data that was gained from bone analysis in comparison to extant species that led paleontologists to surmise that the bear was so massive. It seems to me that this sort of data would be more reliable than how heavy the animal looks. Appearance alone is actually not always a very good way to estimate an animal’s weight either. It’s hard to make an estimate based on something not “looking that big”, and personally I’d like to see more hard data than that. But the reconstructions are interesting nevertheless. I’d like to take them in conjunction with data gained from equations on calculating mass and speculate from there. I think there is likely a middle ground between the extreme estimates of size and how heavy the animal “looks”. In my opinion, it seems as if Arctodus simus was likely comparable to or slightly exceeding the very largest specimens of extant bears in terms of overall mass (although not generally in the one ton range, true.) I appreciate your ideas very much, however its exact size seems very debatable to me at this point considering the long bone examinations and that, as you said, size estimates can be mistaken and hard to pin down.

    That being said, it is strange to me that that data is often mentioned in the same paragraph as descriptions on how comparatively light boned Artodus was. That seems a little counterintuitive to me, to say that it had so much mass, yet it had narrower bones that were not that thick. Yet there seem to be those that stand by the huge size estimates, and these sizes are quoted on quite a few scientific websites. I don’t really know what to make of this seemingly contradictory information.

    As to whether or not it was a scavenger or not, like I said before I tend to agree with the hypothesis that it was a predator for the very reasons you mentioned, as well as considering what I could gain from the animal’s morphology. First of all, through nitrogen analysis of the bones, it seems it was ascertained that Arctodus was strictly a meat eater. It would be a little odd to have a strict carnivore that was solely a scavenger that relied on subsisting purely on carrion without any sort of omnivorous supplement to its diet. Also, there are the large range of highly specialized carnivorous adaptations present such as-

    1) Well developed jaw muscles mounted on a skull remarkable for its length to width ratio. The huge width between the canine teeth would also be suitable for grabbing prey, and the wide snout could be indicative of a good sense of smell. Not in and of themselves definitive reasons to rule out scavenger, but I take them in addition to the other adaptations.

    2) Specialized carnassial molars for shearing meat.

    3) Long legs that seem, at least to me, more sensible as a running adaptation rather than merely one for gaining higher ground. The huge nasal passage found on skulls of the bear may have been for oxygen intake during chases, and in conjunction with these long legs could point to a running predator.

    Perhaps Arctodus supplemented its diet with scavenging, but it seems to me that there are just a few too many specialized predatory adaptations present to have evolved if the animal was strictly a scavenger. It is easier for me to believe these are all present because Arctodus was in fact geared for hunting, at least to a degree. So yes, I agree that it was likely not predominantly a scavenger.

    Any thoughts you have are welcome, of course.

  22. mystery_man responds:

    Sordes- Sorry, another thing I meant to mention regarding mass estimates. Even with long extinct creatures such as dinosaurs, bone analysis can give indications of how massive the animal was. There have actually been some surprising discoveries along these lines, with some species being either much more massive or much lighter than originally thought based on analysis of the bones. Of course a lot of speculation is involved considering there are no known living dinosaurs with which to compare, but there are certain laws of physics and good informed guesses can be made. While Arctodus was built differently than modern extant bears, it is still an animal represented by close modern ancestors, making such analysis even a bit easier, and so although the method might not be always accurate, I think the estimates based on long bone to body mass ratios cannot be completely discarded. It is decent evidence and the data along these lines seem to indicate something with a good amount of mass. But yes, it is often hard to pin down and size estimates can change with time and research. That is why I think the size of Arctodus is perhaps not something that can be said with complete certainty. It’d be interesting to see more studies over a range of individuals.

  23. mystery_man responds:

    Sordes- Incidentally, the point you made about the body size of Arctodus rather than leg size in comparison with modern day bears is a very good one. It is true that a lot of those muscles for digging and what not are located in the torso and that a bigger torso would possibly indicate more mass. Is that what you meant about using the reconstructions to consider overall mass? The body of Arctodus is relatively shorter and not quite as big as some of the larger polar and grizzly bears. Since they are similar species this could possibly point to less mass in the torso on Arctodus when comparing the two, considering we can extrapolate to get an idea of how much mass a grizzly or polar bear would have with similar body and leg dimensions. Hmmmm. Anyway, just throwing thoughts out there. Very interesting discussion you’ve gotten me into here!

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