Paddington’s dangerous cousin

Arctodus simus by Sergiodlarosa via Wikimedia Commons

Arctodus simus by Sergiodlarosa via Wikimedia Commons

North and South America were the last continents to be conquered by humans. We have been in Africa since we first evolved, Europe and Asia for over a million years, in Australia for about 60,000 years, but in the Americas for only about 15,000. Considering that reaching Australia required a treacherous ocean voyage but you could walk to Alaska without getting your feet wet via the flat, treeless, mammoth steppe of Beringia (with plenty of game to hunt en-route), why did it take people so long to reach the promised land? Some researchers have suggested that perhaps people did reach Beringia much earlier, but what they met there prevented them from penetrating any further. Along with the mammoths, cave lions, bison, and horses, Beringia had something else. Something that would have been completely unfamiliar to the humans who encountered it. Something seemingly crafted from our deepest, darkest nightmares. Arctodus simus: the giant short-faced bear may have been the most terrifying land carnivore our species ever encountered.

Today, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is the largest land carnivore but 12,000 years ago that title went to a member of the subfamily of bears known as the Tremarctinae. We still have one member of this unique subfamily left; the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus). The only bear found in South America (including deepest, darkest Peru), this predominantly vegetarian teddy is technically the largest carnivore left on that continent, despite being a relatively puny 100-200kg. A sister species, the Florida cave bear (Tremarctos floridanus), also roamed Pleistocene North America. However, their close relative, the giant short-faced bears (genera Arctodus and Arctotherium/ Pararctotherium) were absolutely colossal beasts. Arctotherium/Pararctotherium (opinion is divided on how valid these generic distinctions are) has been found all over South America, even down into southern Patagonia. Arctodus simus has been found at sites all over North America, from Alaska and the Yukon Territory down to Florida and Texas. Whilst we have a mitochondrial genome from Arctodus and know it diverged from the spectacled bear during the late Miocene/early Pliocene, it is not known exactly how closely related Arctodus and Arctotherium/Pararctotherium are to each other. Ancient DNA work is happening right now that should give a handle on the complicated phylogenetics of these bears.

The relatively cuddly spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus)

The relatively cuddly spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus)

Arctodus simus was an 800kg monster. To give some impression of its size: while on all fours this bear could gaze directly into my eyes (I’m 6’2”). Standing on its hind legs an average bear could reach 12-feet (in fact, the site of Riverbluff cave in Missouri has claw marks 15 feet up on some side walls that were probably produced by a large Arctodus). Another site with Arctodus is Big Bear cave in the Ozark mountains. The articulated skeleton found there is impressive for the amount of information it left about short-faced bear biology. The animal, like many other cave finds, was a small female, which cumulatively suggest that Arctodus females denned (perhaps surprisingly, only one fossil Arctodus baculum has ever been recovered). The Ozark skeleton is also unique in the preservation of fossilised hair at the site.

What natural forces could possibly have conspired to produce a carnivore of such enormous dimensions? Most researchers think that the specialisations present in Arctodus (i.e. long legs, large size, short jaws), are adaptations to a life of extreme hypercarnivory. Long legs allow for efficient movement over a wide home range, necessary to locate carcasses, large size can act as an effective deterrent to other carnivores to scare them off a kill site (kleptoparasitism), and short jaws give extra bone crushing power. It seems that this hypothesis is backed up by good data. Stable isotope analysis of Arctodus remains show elevated ∂15 Nitrogen values- this indicates that Arctodus was consuming a very meaty diet, perhaps with a large component of caribou (Rangifer tarandus). However, as with most things in science, different researchers think that the opposite is true and have concluded that the morphology of short-faced bears indicate a life of herbivory with some omnivory. My money is still on Arctodus simus being one of the biggest and baddest animals ever to have lived.

How badass was it? Well, a very interesting pattern cropped up when palaeontologists were looking at late Pleistocene radiocarbon dates from eastern Beringia. They found that during time periods when Arctodus simus was present (i.e. 20,000-45,000 14C years BP) there is a noticeable lack of other predators (lions, scimitar cats, brown bears). Either the environment was selectively excluding everything but short-faced bears during this time period, or perhaps more likely, Arctodus simus was such an efficient predator/scavenger that there was simply not enough prey biomass left for other carnivores to get a look in. If this was the case, it is perhaps no surprise that human presence in eastern Beringia is only known from after Arctodus’ extinction. Maybe one day we will find an Arctodus coprolite with some evidence of the pre-pre-Clovis pioneers!

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Barnes, I., P. Matheus, B. Shapiro, D. Jensen, and A. Cooper. “Dynamics of Pleistocene Population Extinctions in Beringian Brown Bears.” Science 295, no. 5563 (Mar 22 2002): 2267-70. [Full Text]

Christiansen, P. “What Size Were Arctodus Simus and Ursus Spelaeus (Carnivora: Ursidae)?”. Ann. Zool. Fennici 36 (1999): 93-102.[Full Text]

Figueirido, B., J. A. Perez-Claros, V. Torregrosa, A. Martin-Serra, and P. Palmqvist. “Demythologizing Arctodus Simus, the ‘Short-Faced’ Long-Legged and Predaceous Bear That Never Was.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30, no. 1 (2010): 262-75.[Full Text]

Fox-Dobbs, K., J. A. Leonard, and P.L. Koch. “Pleistocene Megafauna from Eastern Beringia: Paleoecological and Paleoenvironmental Interpretations of Stable Carbon and Nitrogen Isotope and Radiocarbon Records.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 261 (2008): 30-46.[Full Text]

Krause, J., T. Unger, A. Nocon, A. Malaspinas, S. Kolokotronis, M. Stiller, L. Soibelzon, et al. “Mitochondrial Genomes Reveal an Explosive Radiation of Extinct and Extant Bears near the Miocene-Pliocene Boundary.” BMC Evolutionary Biology 8 (2009): 220.[Full Text]

Matheus, P. “Diet and Co-Ecology of Pleistocene Short-Faced Bears and Brown Bears in Eastern Beringia.” Quaternary International 44 (1995): 447-53.[Abstract]

Prevosti, F. J., L. H. Soibelzon, A. Prieto, M. San Roman, and F. Morello. “The Southernmost Bear: Pararctotherium (Carnivora, Ursidae, Tremarctinae) in the Latest Pleistocene of Southern Patagonia, Chile.” [In English]. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23, no. 3 (SEP 12 2003): 709-12.[Abstract]

Schubert, B. W., and J. E. Kaufmann. “A Partial Short-Faced Bear Skeleton from an Ozark Cave with Comments on the Paleobiology of the Species.” Journal of Cave and Karst Studies 65, no. 2 (2003): 101-10.[Full Text]

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102 Responses to Paddington’s dangerous cousin

  1. Reblogged this on kingsathishmass and commented:
    if u see the animal what i your mind type below frds

  2. Mentil Mind says:

    I can hardly wait for the movie, though.

  3. samwise83 says:

    Reblogged this on The Student Lounge KL and commented:
    I like this

  4. waterhigh says:

    Reblogged this on The Fenn Diagrams and commented:
    Very cool finds in caves in Missouri. Click on the Riverbluff link to see photos of a serious large claw mark. {8 inch wide and 15 feet up the wall.) Glad that these days we only have to worry about grizzlies in the Rockies and not Arctodis simus. . .

  5. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | mickreff's Blog

  6. Outlier Babe says:

    Oh, dear. I so enjoyed your post. And the toothy-cat one in the link. You have a droll style of writing I like (your kitty pic caption, for example). But what is my take-away from all your efforts at (my) scientific edification?

    Well, it’s yoir own fault, really, choosing to end your piece that way. But all I can think about now is that you chose the wrong bear. Instead of Paddington, shouldn’t you have gone with (I wish I weren’t even going to say it, even as my d#mned evil thumbs are acting on their own!)


  7. Mike Walsh says:

    very informative – great read.

  8. alexvrince says:

    Reblogged this on an everyday life blog.

  9. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | Environmental Nerd

  10. I love the title instantly make you think of sonething else ( which is paddington)

  11. So enjoyed reading this. Thank you

  12. just an average student says:

    Reblogged this on The world through my eyes.

  13. bebadooo says:

    Hehe such a good read 🎀

  14. Ivan Horak says:

    Paddington’s dangerous but cute cousin! 😉

  15. Fascinating stuff. I didn’t know anything about some of the facts you told us.

  16. Reblogged this on knittingtastic and commented:
    Is it amazing or what!!! Bears are such amazing animals. Why not create your own art

  17. apkfrog says:

    Thank you
    Fantastic Blog
    Good luck

  18. Liz French says:

    I am so glad I found this blog. Very interesting. A great read!

  19. Reblogged this on texthistory and commented:
    Scary stuff!

  20. amr4874 says:

    Reblogged this on som.

  21. Darell Grant says:

    So so cool! Science continues to rule!

  22. Reblogged this on Ecotecasesores's Blog and commented:

  23. hookhamrowan says:

    Reblogged this on String Thoughts.

  24. trulyaddia says:

    interesting, it’s huge!! does look snuggly though. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Reagree Public says:

    Reblogged this on Reagree Public.

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