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'Hybrid bear' from 1864 actually grizzly bear
Smithsonian Institute confirms bear not a grizzly-polar hybrid

Samantha Stokell
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Put your suspicions to rest about a historical grizzly-polar bear hybrid shot in the Northwest Territories in 1864. It's not true at all.

NNSL photo/graphic

The grizzly-polar bear hybrid, shot by an Inuvialuit hunter near Ulukhaktok. The animal, now stuffed, sits in Ulukhaktok's new community centre. A bear found in 1864 was once thought to be a hybrid, but was actually just a grizzly bear. - NNSL file photo

A scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, where the remains of McFarlane's Bear -- as the specimen is called -- are located, says the bear is a young female grizzly bear, with no indication of polar bear characteristics.

"(It is) somewhat paler than most, but in no way white or yellow," said Don Wilson, chairman of the department of vertebrate zoology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. "The skin, to me, suggests nothing more than a somewhat faded, brown-looking grizzly."

Wilson inspected the skin and skull of the bear last week at the request of News/North, to put the myths to rest once and for all.

The stories suggest naturalist and Arctic explorer Roderick R. McFarlane came across two Inuit hunters in the spring of 1864 who had shot a yellowish bear that attacked them. McFarlane and the hunters thought nothing unique about the bear, but shipped the skull, skeleton and skin to the Smithsonian, one of 73 specimens he sent from the Northwest Territories.

Through the years word spread that it was a polar-grizzly hybrid. Crypto-zoologists hypothesized the bear was a one-of-a-kind lost species. Then, in the summer of 2010, DNA testing by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources confirmed a white and brown bear shot by an Inuvialuit hunter in Ulukhaktok was indeed a grizzly-polar hybrid.

The Smithsonian's bear though, is most decidedly not a hybrid. According to Wilson, the bear has some unusual features in its teeth, which may have resulted in early mammologists identifying the specimen as a different type from a regular grizzly bear.

Clinton Hart Merriam, the founder of the U.S. Biological Survey, identified the bear as a type of grizzly, called Vetularctos inopinatus. He named many new species of both mammals and birds, including tens of different types of bears -- one of which was McFarlane's Bear -- during his time there from 1886 to 1939.

All the talk of a hybridization came from speculation by various cryptozoologists.

"It is just that. Speculation that gets blown out of proportion because people like to read about the possibility of huge bears or other strange animals waiting to be discovered," Wilson said. "On the other hand, the possibility of increasing hybridization caused by climate change is interesting indeed, and certainly worthy of further study. I just don't think this particular specimen is involved in that scenario."

The remains of McFarlane's Bear will stay in the type collection of the Smithsonian. The type collection contains the name-bearing specimens for many species, which is the specimen the describer studied when the scientific name was first published.

It is available for any visiting scientist to study.

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