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A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

This blog frequently describes mammals which are extinct or not well known—creatures like the pseudo-legendary saola, the furtive golden mole, or the long-vanished moeritherium, however today Ferrebeekeeper is going all out and writing about one of the wild animals which people think about most frequently.

"Oh good, humankind is thinking about us."

“Oh no! Humankind is thinking about us.”

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is beloved, feared, worshipped, hunted, despised, and glorified by humankind.  These great bears are arguably the largest land predator alive today (their only rival is their near-cousin, the polar bear).  A Kodiak brown bear can weigh up to 680 kg (1500 lbs) and stand 3 meters (10 feet) tall when on two legs.  Brown bears can run (much) faster than the fastest human sprinter.  Likewise they can climb and swim better than we can.   They are literal monsters—mountains of muscle with razor sharp teeth and claws.  However, bears have become so successful and widespread not because of their astonishing physical prowess, but because of their substantial intelligence.

A female brown bear in an English zoo waves to appreciative zoogoers.

A female brown bear in an English zoo waves to appreciative zoogoers.

Ursus arctos live in India, China, the United States, Russia, and throughout Europe.  Because they live across such a broad swath of planet Earth, brown bears are divided into nearly twenty subspecies, but these various brown bears all share the same basic characteristics and traits.  Brown bears are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular, but they can hunt and forage during the day if it daylight suits their needs.  Since they are ingenious omnivores, they are capable of living in many different landscapes and habitats.  Usually solitary by nature, the bears sometimes gather together in large numbers if a suitable source of nutrients becomes available (such as a salmon run, a dump, or a meadow full of moth larva). The bears eat everything from tiny berries and nuts on up to bison and muskox.  Although the majority of bears live primarily by foraging, some families are extremely accomplished at hunting.  Brown bears pin their prey to the ground and then begin devouring the still living animal.  This ferocious style means that humans greatly fear bear attacks, even though such events are extremely rare everywhere but Russia (where all living things continuously attack all other living things anyhow).

Brown bear cub with mother in Alaska (photo by superbearblog.com)

Brown bear cub with mother in Alaska (photo by superbearblog.com)

Bears are serial monogamists: they stay together with a single partner for a few weeks and then move on romantically.  The female raises the cubs entirely on her own.  Gravid bears have the remarkable ability to keep embryos alive in a suspended unimplanted state for up to six months.  In the midst of the mother bear’s hibernation, the embryos implant themselves on the uterine wall and the cubs are born eight weeks later. Remarkably, if a bear lacks suitable body fat for nursing cubs, the embryos are reabsorbed.

Entertainer Bart the Bear with his trainer/human liaison

Entertainer, Bart the Bear, poses with his trainer/human liaison

Experts believe that brown bears are as intelligent as the great apes.  There is evidence of bears using tools, planning for the future, and figuring out formidable puzzles (although they are terrible at crosswords). Their high intelligence can make bears seem endearingly human—as in the case of a beer-drinking bear from Washington State.  After drinking one can of a fancy local beer and one can of mass market Busch, the bear proceeded to ignore the Busch while drinking 36 cans of the pricier local brew before passing out. There are famous bear actors with resumes more impressive than all but the most elite film stars.  In other cases, bears and people have worked together less well.  Brown bears used to live throughout the continental United States, but they were hunted to death.

"The figure of a shaman’s bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The “healing hands” of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems." (from http://arctolatry.tumblr.com)

“The figure of a shaman’s bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The “healing hands” of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems.” (from http://arctolatry.tumblr.com)

Humans and bears have a love-hate relationship: although bears have been driven out of many places where they once lived, the practice of bear-worship was so widespread among circumpolar and ancient people that there is even a word for it: “arctolatry”.  Bear worship is well documented among the Sami, the Ainu, the Haida, and the Finns.  In pre-Roman times, bears were worshiped by the Gauls and the British.  Artemis has a she-bear form and is closely associated with Ursus Major and Ursus Minor.  Yet bear worship stretches back beyond ancient times into true prehistory.  Cult items discovered in Europe suggest that bears were worshiped in the Paleolithic and were probably of religious significance to Neanderthals as well as Homo Sapiens.  Indeed, some archaeologists posit that the first European deities took the form of bears.

large_brown_bear

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Sadly, today the rhinoceroses are few on the ground.  There are only five extant species of the family Rhinocerotidae and none of them are doing well–because of habitat loss and humankind’s obdurate (and extraordinarily foolish) belief that rhino horns have magical supernatural powers. Yet once the rhinos were a mighty force—in fact, the largest land mammal ever, the Paraceratherium, was a sort of rhino.  There used to be multiple tribes of Rhinocerotidae, each containing numerous genera (which could in turn contain dozens of species) of these great horned perissodactyls. None of the extinct rhinos was more splendid that the magnificent wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) which roamed Eurasia during the icy Pleistocene epoch and even survived (probably) up until the beginnings of human civilization.

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

A wooly rhinoceros was a substantial creature.  From fossils and mummified remains, we know they measured around 3 to 3.8 metres (10 to 12.5 feet) in length, and had an estimated weight of around 2,700–3,200 kg (5,999–7,000 lb)—so they were not much smaller than the still-living white rhinoceros (although wooly rhinoceroses are more closely related to the contemporary Sumatran rhinos—which do not become so big and heavy).  As you might guess from the name, wooly rhinoceroses had magnificent hairy coats to help them survive the cold and they had two large horns for defense and for mating displays.  For a long time, paleontologists have argued about whether the Coelodontas grazed grasses or browsed on tender shoots, berries, and mosses, but paleobotanical evidence (taken in tandem with fossilized skeletal features) now seems to indicate they were browsers, like bison or cows.

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly rhinos roamed the frozen steppes of Eurasia–a habitat which was much larger in those days due to the ice age and the lower sea levels of the Pleistocene.  For example, wooly rhinos could be found on the dry & icy wastelands of Southern England and they thundered across the cold plains which would later become the fertile hunting lands of Doggerland (which are now submerged beneath the North Sea).  They were also prevalent across northern Europe and down through Central Asia all the way to the Tibetan Plateau.

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Based on cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, humankind seems to have had an early fascination with these great furry beasts.  Unfortunately the last wooly rhinos apparently went extinct around eight to ten thousand years ago (according to somewhat disputed carbon 14 readings from a specimen found frozen in the Siberian permafrost).  Many large species of Paleocene megafauna died off at approximately the same time: whether the great behemoths went extinct from humanity’s increasingly effective hunting, climate change, or from some great pandemic which affected large animals is unclear (although contemporary scientists have been inclining towards climate change as a primary cause).

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

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