Bears are some of the most imposing species out there. Meeting one in the wild is a death sentence, and it comes as no surprise.
They went through millions of years’ worth of evolutionary trials to become the species that they are today.
For example, brown bears originated 1.2 to 1.4 million years ago in Eurasia and survived to this day. But how did they get to America?
This is Wild and Domestic, and today we will tell you a story of bears, from their extant species, to the evolutionary tale which brought them to America.
About Bear Species Today
Bears belong to the Ursidae family, and there are only 8 members of this species roaming our earth today. Could Bears Survive in Africa?
The Giant Panda
Let’s briefly overview all of them, starting with the giant panda, which is the oldest bear species alive.
This might come off as a surprise because they arguably have the most distinct appearance and diet of all bears.
Despite belonging to the order Carnivora, giant pandas primarily feed on bamboo shoots and leaves.
They can grow up to 75 inches (190 cm) long and weigh up to 350 pounds (160 kg)!
“Sadly, they are also the most endangered bear species. Estimates guess that there are only about 1600 pandas living in the wild today.
The Sloth Bear
Moving from these cute bears, we have the sloth bear, which is the opposite of cute.
They inhabit the Indian subcontinent and feed on insects by sucking them up thanks to their long lower lip.
The sloth bear’s body length is comparable to panda’s, but they are not as chubby, weighing up to 230 pounds (105 kg).
The Sun Bear
Another species inhabiting southeast Asia is the sun bear, which we’ve covered in one of our posts called “10 Most Unpredictable Wild Animals” this is the post that you should read after finishing this one. The sun bear is the smallest bear species, weighing up to just 140 pounds (65 kg).
They have a yellow circular patch on their chests, explaining the name of this species.
The Asian black bear
The final bear species inhabiting the Far East is the Asian black bear.
They can be found anywhere from the Himalayas to Japan. Just like their sun bear cousins, they also have a patch on their chest.
However, unlike sun bears, Asian black bears grow relatively large, some individuals reaching 440 pounds (200 kg) in weight and 75 inches (190 cm) in length!
Sadly, they are included in the Red List, because their body parts are still being used in the traditional medicine of the area.
Bears Found In Eurasia
Moving on to Eurasia, we find the brown bear, which is the bear that most people imagine when someone says “bear”.
They can be found all over the place in Eurasia, spanning from Hokkaido in Japan to Scandinavia in Europe.
As a result, there are over 16 brown bear subspecies, each having adapted to their local environment. 6 of them inhabit North America, which we will cover down the line.
Brown bear’s close relative, the polar bear, inhabits the Arctic Circle, which encompasses the northernmost regions of our planet.
The Polar Bears
In fact, polar bears live the closest to the North Pole out of all mammals on earth.
They perfectly adapted to the cold climate of the Arctic Circle, and arguably are the biggest extant bear species. 5 Animals That Could Defeat A Polar Bear
Polar bears can grow up to 118 inches in length (300 cm) and weigh up to 1500 pounds (700 kg). These big boys can literally weigh more than 10 sun bears combined!
Now, we’ve left off 2 bear species that are found in America.
You’ll get to know them through the evolutionary journey of bears, and find out how they managed to appear in a landmass that’s completely separate from where bears originated.
Evolutionary Tale of Bears
So how did these 8 species of bears come to be?
Actually, all of them share a common ancestor with dogs.
Back in the day, like really back in the day, like over 35 million years ago, creatures called Parictis roamed our earth.
They are likely the first genus of bears but looked nothing like their extant relatives today.
Parictis were small raccoon-like creatures, with skulls reaching just 2.75 inches in length (7 cm), that originated in… North America!
How did the bears get to Eurasia”?
what’s today regarded as the earliest subfamily of Ursidae, what is commonly called bears.
Animals belonging to this subfamily lived in Africa, Eurasia, and North America for nearly 30 million years.
It spawned many different groups of species, however, the most relevant to us is Hemicyon.
This name translated from Greek means “half dog”, but species of this genus are commonly called dog bears.
This genus existed about 16-12 million years ago and is the evolutionary link between the bear and dog species we know today.
These dog bears were way bigger than their American ancestors Parictis, growing up to 5-feet long (1.5 m) and standing 28-inches tall (70 cm).
They were hyper carnivorous, and unlike modern bears, walking on toes.
The Dawn Bear (Ursavus elemensis)
For a closer relative of modern bears, we have to look at Ursavus elemensis, commonly called the dawn bear
It was about the size of a wolf, but unlike the dog bears, it was omnivorous, having a varied diet consisting of plants and flesh.
Eventually, this genus gave rise to Ursus minimus, the earliest species that are grouped in the same family as modern bears.
This animal is commonly called the Auvergne bear, and its fossils can be found across Europe, from France to Russia.
It looked similar to the Asian black bear and lived from 5.3 to 1.8 million years ago.
Despite not knowing much about this species, scientists argue that it split into two separate bear lineages, one resulting in black bears like the sun bear, and another in brown bears.
The brown bear lineage
The brown bear lineage went through the Etruscan bear, which inhabited our earth for nearly 5 million years until it went extinct 100,000 years ago.
The Cave Bear
This species gave rise to the cave bear, which lived in Europe, and was a direct ancestor of the brown bear.
Cave bears get their common name from speculations that they spent more time in caves compared to brown bears, who use caves only for hibernation.
The cave bear was huge species, standing at 11-feet 5-inches tall, and weighing up to 2200 pounds (1000 kg).
Appearance-wise, they were very similar to modern brown bears but had huge and broadheads that were equipped with equally large teeth.
They were omnivorous, and are sometimes found depicted in cave paintings. It indicates that early humans possibly hunted cave bears.
Brown bears split from the last common ancestor with cave bears around 1.2 to 1.4 million years ago.
That´s right, modern brown bears co-existed with cave bears, but only one of these species survived the trials of the ever-changing climate.
It’s argued that cave bears, just like brown bears, were omnivorous, but primarily fed on plants that became scarcer and scarcer during the Last Glacial Maximum.
Cave bears went extinct around 20,000 years ago, while their modern brothers are roaming the earth to this day.
The brown bear evolved in Eurasia and about 200,000 years ago it crossed the Beringia, which was a land bridge connecting Siberia to Alaska.
That’s how brown bears got to America, but they were far from being the first bear species migrating to the Americas.
The Giant short-faced bear
For example, the giant short-faced bear crossed the same landmass some 1 million years ago.
They belonged to a separate subfamily of bears and were the biggest carnivorous land mammal ever.
Believe it or not, they reached up to 10-feet (3 m) in height when standing on their hind legs, and 5 feet (150 cm) when standing on all four.
They possibly weighed up to a ton and dominated North America for 1 million years, until they got outcompeted by newly arrived brown bears.
However, the giant short-faced bear relatives moved south and eventually evolved into the spectacled bear, the only living bear species in South America today.
The brown bear split into 6 subspecies
On the other hand, the brown bear split into 6 subspecies, each having adapted to its local environment.
The Grizzly Bear
Obviously, the fiercest is the grizzly bear, inhabiting the northern regions of North America. SIBERIAN TIGER VS GRIZZLY BEAR – Which is the strongest?
As you just saw, there’s no single correct answer to the question of how did the bears get to America.
They got to America several times, and the very first mammal which evolved into modern bears actually first appeared there before moving to Eurasia.
This story shows the beauty of evolution and makes us think about how the world and species inhabiting it changed throughout millions of years.
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