The Centre for Fortean Zoology was founded in the UK in 1992 - nearly 20 years ago. Over the past two decades it has expanded to become a truly global organisation. We opened our American office in 2001, our Australian office in 2009, and now - in our 19th year - we are proud to welcome CFZ Canada to the CFZ global family.

Saturday 7 January 2012

MacFarlane’s Bear

In 1864, Inuit hunters shot and killed an enormous yellow-furred bear in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  They gave the skin and skull to naturalist Robert MacFarlane, who then shipped them to the Smithsonian Institution.

Robert MacFarlane was the same person as Roderick Ross McFarlane of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  McFarlane is historically noted to be a mercantile operative for the company and an arctic naturalist.  He established Fort Anderson for HBC in 1861 to facilitate trade with the Inuit.  Five years later the Fort closed due to declining revenues, probably caused by a measles epidemic that killed many in the area.  Fort Anderson, on the Anderson River, was located about halfway between Great Bear Lake and the Beaufort Bay area of the Arctic Ocean.  The bear was shot at Sachs Harbor and Fort Anderson was the closest trading post at the time.  The Smithsonian recently retooled the MacFarlane donations into a collection of over 5000 items designated in a special study of Inuit history.

At the Smithsonian, the items were stored away and forgotten until the early 1900’s.  At the time of the acquisition of the bear, the Smithsonian was only 20 years old.  Interestingly, shortly after the bear arrived at the museum, they suffered a devastating fire.  Because the bear was deep in storage and not on display, it was spared any damage.

In 1918, Dr. Clinton Hart Merriam researched the remains.  He proposed they were from a new species and not a brown bear at all. He named it Vetularctos inopinatus, calling it the "ancient unexpected bear."  Dr. Merriam was the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, which evolved into the National Wildlife Research Center and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  He was also one of the original founders of the  National Geographic Society.  Through the course of his research, he proposed many different species of brown bears.

It was not originally believed that brown bears and polar bears interbred and formed hybrid, but this has since been confirmed.  MacFarlane’s bear has pale tan fur and an oddly shaped skull which is consistent with known brown/polar hybrids.  To date, no DNA testing has been done on this specimen to confirm that it was indeed this pairing rather than a new species.  If it turns out to be a hybrid the scientific names Vetularctos and Ursus inopinatus would become invalid under the ICZN.

Dr. Blaine W. Schubert (of East Tennessee State University) was allowed to examine the skull (although the Institute did not allow the examination to be filmed). Schubert stated that he was "100% sure" that it was the skull of a young, female brown bear and "actually, not a particularly large individual."  It should be noted, however, that Dr. Schubert is primarily a Paleontologist with specialties in Cave Paleontology and evolution of short faced bears.  While his knowledge is extensive and his opinion valuable, he is not an expert in Arctic bears nor their prehistoric forefathers.

In 1984, E. Raymond Hall synonymized U. inopinatus with U. arctos horribilis, the normal grizzly bear.  Dr. Hall was influential in vertebrate zoology until his death in 1986.


  1. I had been informed that the DNA examination was done and it turned out to be a brown bear. my reply was then that since the hide had been stored for decades with many other hides of brown bears, I did not think the results should be trustworthy, since the risk for contamination from the other hides' DNA would be very high.
    So now you are saying that the DNA test was NOT done and it was only an opinion based on the morphology of the skull that determined the classification? I would think that Dr. Schubert's opinion also would not have been definitive. This makes the matter much less settled than I was led to believe after a Monster Quest episode supposedly dealt with the matter.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  2. there was dna testing done on a bear shot in 2006 that confirmed the polar/brown hybrid does occur. that bear came from the same general area as MacFarlane's, but to my knowledge the MacFarlane specimen itself was never tested. Corrections welcome if Im wrong!

  3. Perhaps the only way that we could have a satisfactory answer is if "they" would do a televised dna test. Wow! wouldn't bring a lot of attention. I was raised in various islands in southeast Alaska as a Coast Guard brat and have good knowledge of bear. Most of my free time as a teen i would go to the local dump to watch the bears, and explore the island for new fishing grounds. On one trip i had seen a group of bear like tracks near a snowy slope with large beds on it from the same animals that had made the large bear like tracks. And on the same island i was goose hunting and had seen three up right large brown bear like animals walking togather, when they noticed me they turned and walked into the trees all on two legs. With my knowledge of bear i know that adult bear do not group togather due to territoriality and do not typicaly walk more than a step or two on there hind legs, except when in a river fishing or when fighting another brown bear. In the past fifty years, animals thought to have been extinct have been discoverd a live and well. My belief is that the MacFarlane bear was what was left of an ancient blood line mixed with grizzly. Similar to polor/brown hybrids different species of bear are now known to mate, and they look very much more like a polar than a brown. I hope that my opinion is helpful and if anyone knows how to get Monster Quest in touch with me it would be much apreciated as i have one hell of a story to share and could possibly shed light on my favorite creatures on the planet, "the bear".