Photo of the Day #87: Playing Grizzlies

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The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is the second largest living bear (the largest being the polar bear, Ursus maritimus), but depending on where you are in the world it can go by many names and vary in appearance. At present there seems to be a glut of possible brown bear subspecies that scream for proper revision, from the familiar grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) to the strange Tibetan blue bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus). Further adding to some of the confusion are rare hybrids produced from the mating of a polar bear and a brown bear, a wild example of this sort of pairing being discovered in 2006. The bears pictured playing above are grizzlies at the Bronx Zoo, and all the bears in the exhibit are named after characters in the Archie comic books (sadly, the bear named Jughead died last year).

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A pair of playing grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), photographed at the Bronx Zoo.
A grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), photographed at the Bronx Zoo.
A grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), photographed at the Bronx Zoo.

I remember the grizzly-polar bear cross very well, because it happened in Canada (in Alberta, I think). It was a big deal, because it was the first proven case of this happening, although it has been known anecdotally for a long time.

Despite all the bush work in northern BC that I've done, I've never run across a grizzly in the field, much to my relief. I've only ever seen black bears, and those only from a vehicle, and never in the immediate vicinity of where I was doing any archaeology surveys. I was on a survey once and one of the participants asked if anyone was a bear attractor and I said that I was the opposite, a bear repeller. In Cree lore, that would mean I'm a bear spirit, because bears don't come near me, but it may be just a coincidence, too. I don't believe in animism, but it does seem odd that I've never seen a bear up close and personal before, and most people I've worked with in the field have. The only person I heard of who didn't was an old shaman who is a bear spirit, according to his belief system. I always thought it was just handy that bears stayed away from me. I doubt there are many wild grizzlies around here, but they are extremely unpredictable and are not as inclined as black bears to simply run off if they see a human.

Yeah, brown bear subspecies are one of those horrible messes that no-one has the courage to clean up - it just sits there like an enormous mound of pink blancmange that wobbles disturbingly if poked with a long stick.

In the pre-population thinking days of systematics, bears underwent a huge explosion of named species - the classic example is Merriam's recognition of 82 species of brown bear in North America alone. In reaction to this, the number of subspecies was trimmed down to just one or two - my animal books used to mention the Eurasian Ursus arctos arctos and the North American U. a. horribilis, with maybe a grudging recognition for the Kodiak U. a. middendorffi. Since then, I've noticed other names creeping back into the daylight, but it's still all a little custardy.