Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/January 1875/Concerning Bears

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 6‎ | January 1875


THE bear family (Ursidæ), though comprising a comparatively small number of species, is yet one of the most widespread of all the carnivora, being found all over the earth's surface, except in Africa and Australia. In the latter country, there is an animal somewhat resembling the bear in appearance, and having the tree-climbing habit, known popularly as the Australian bear. This animal is, however, not a bear, but belongs, with its cousins, the kangaroo, bandicoot, and opossum, to another family. Regarding the existence of the bear in Africa, there has long been some difference of opinion. Herodotus, Virgil, and other ancient writers, speak of Libyan bears. Pliny alludes to Numidian bears being exhibited by Ethiopian hunters in a Roman circus, 61 b. c. Latterly, Ehrenberg and Forskal both mention a black plantigrade animal, called by the natives karvai, which inhabits the mountains of Abyssinia. They hunted and saw it, but failed to capture a specimen. It is possible that the bear may yet be found in at least a portion of the vast unexplored area of that continent, but the opinion that it does not exist there is now generally held by naturalists, and it may reasonably be entertained, until controverted by the finding of a specimen.

The general characteristics of the bear are the rough, shaggy coat conspicuous massiveness of the hinder parts, which gives a peculiar shape to the body; plantigrade gait, and the habit of erecting the body and standing upon the hind-feet when attacked or in combat. The feet, especially the paws, are armed with long, sharp claws, not retractile, nor so much crooked as are those of the feline tribe, nevertheless capable of inflicting terrible wounds when impelled by the powerful force which the bear can exert. The bear is both carnivorous and vegetarian, and will apparently thrive on either a purely animal or vegetable diet. It is a gregarious animal, extremely sociable, subject to strong attachments for its mate and young, and, in a state of domestication, for man. Most of the species are good climbers, and all are good swimmers. Excepting a few species, it is a singularly harmless animal while undisturbed, but is ferocious and dangerous when attacked, or when defending its young. Its sagacity, strength, and surprising tenacity of life, render it a formidable combatant. It is remarkably adroit in guarding itself against the blows of an antagonist, and will ward off even the heaviest with wonderful dexterity. In combat, it rears upon the hind-feet and strikes powerfully with its paws; it also endeavers to crush the body of its antagonist by hugging, and will at the same time inflict fearful wounds with the claws of its hind-feet. Although so ferocious when aroused to anger, it is (excepting the polar and the grizzly) easily domesticated, and makes a most affectionate and amusing pet. One of the most curious characteristics of the bear is its habit of hibernating through the winter. During the autumn it becomes very fat, and, about the end of October, completing its winter house, ceases feeding for the year. A remarkable phenomenon then takes place in the animal's digestive organs. The stomach, no longer supplied with food, contracts into a very small space. A mechanical obstruction called the "tappen," composed of fine leaves, or other extraneous substances, blocks the alimentary canal, and prevents the outward passage of any matter. The bear continues in its den until the middle of April, in a dull, lethargic condition. If discovered and killed at any time in this period, it is found to be as fat as at the beginning. It is said, however, that, if it loses the "tappen" before the end of its hibernation, it immediately becomes extremely thin. During the hibernation the bear gains a new skin upon the balls of its feet, and, during the same time also, the female brings forth her young, from two to four in number. The latter act occurs generally from the middle of January to the middle of February. The pairing season occurs in the summer, from June to September. The period of gestation is about seven months, and the newly-born cubs are scarcely larger than puppies.

The visitor to Central Park, who walks along the corridor east of the Museum building, cannot fail to be struck with the grizzly bear (Ursus horribilis, or U. ferox). His mixed brownish and steely-gray coat, great size, massive proportions, and, above all, his ferocious aspect, render him one of the most conspicuous objects there. Observe his great broad head, with the small, cruel, brown eye, pointed muzzle, and powerful jaws, which, opening occasionally, display a set of alarming teeth. His fore-limbs, by their size indicating enormous strength, are each armed with live claws from four to five inches long, nearly straight. These claws are not needle-pointed like the cat's, but come to an edge like a chisel, and they are extremely sharp. His hind-limbs

PSM V06 D297 Grizzly bear.jpg
Fig.—1. Grizzly Bear (Ursus horribilis).

are even more massive still, and are also armed with similar though shorter and more curved claws. His tail is so short that it is hidden by his coat. All this time he has been contemptuously eying us from the back part of his cage, but now he has become impatient of our scrutiny, and suddenly reaches toward us with open mouth, uttering a savage sound between a sigh and a growl. He then turns to gallop around his cage, and affords an opportunity to observe one of his most striking peculiarities. This is his curious, shambling gait. His fore-limbs go in a canter, while his head sways from side to side, and the rest of his body slides along upon the soles of his hind-feet. Mr. Darwin would be sure to call this sliding movement an inherited peculiarity, acquired by the grizzly's ancestors in sliding down the glaciated sides of the Rocky Mountains. He has it, whatever may have been the manner of its coming to him, and constant practice of it has worn the floor of his cage white and smooth. The grizzly is the largest member of his family; a full-grown male being from eight and a half to nine feet long, and the girth of the body is equal to the length. The average weight is about 800 pounds. The one we have been regarding is a fine specimen, being between seven and eight feet long. The color is not uniform, being in some cases of a dull brown, in others almost black, and in still others almost white. The head is covered with short, brown hair; the ears are short, and the depression between the brow and the muzzle considerable. The head is much larger in proportion to the size of the body than in other bears; and its feet, also, with the single exception of the polar bear, in which there obtains a still larger proportion. His haunts are the Rocky Mountains and the plains eastward; he is also commonly found westward, and as far north as latitude 61°. His principal food is flesh; but fruits and other vegetable substances also form a part of his diet. The younger animals are tree-climbing, but the older are not, seemingly, from their great weight. The pregnant female and the young animals hibernate, but the full-grown males are as active in winter as at other seasons.

The grizzly is the most ferocious and terrible of all American animals. He exercises absolute terrorism over every living creature that comes in his way. It is said that even the hungry wolf will flee at the sight of his track, and no animal will venture to touch a deer that has been killed and left by him. His strength is such that, even the powerful bison falls an easy prey, and a single blow from one of his paws has been known to remove the entire scalp from a man's head. He is the only member of his family that will venture to attack man unchallenged, but it is said that he will retreat at the scent of a man, if he can do so unobserved. He has attributed to him a peculiar habit, of digging a pit for his fallen prey, in which he covers it over

PSM V06 D298 Black bear.jpg
Fig. 2.—Black Bear (Ursus Americanus.)

with leaves and rubbish. Hunters, knowing this habit, have saved their lives in desperate cases by feigning death without wounding the bear, escape being made while the latter is continuing his ramble in search of other prey. He is so tenacious of life that, unless shot through the heart or brain, his body may be riddled with bullets without fatal effect. One which had received two bullets through his heart, besides eight in other parts of his body, survived more than twenty minutes, and swam half a mile. The grizzly is not easily tamed unless captured at a very tender age, but even then he is rough in habits and dangerous as a pet.

Next to the grizzly's cage is that of the black bear (Ursus Americanus). It contains several animals of both sexes. One of the males is a very fine specimen, being about the maximum size of his species, five and six feet in length. His coat is a glossy black, the hairs being much shorter than those of his neighbor. On his cheek the hair assumes a brownish hue. His head is much smaller in proportion to his body than is the grizzly's, it is also narrower, and shows a more decided convexity of facial outline. The muzzle is longer and narrower in proportion to the size of the head. The limbs are far less massive and proportionally longer, the feet smaller, and the claws decidedly shorter and more crooked. His eyes, too, are larger, and he has, instead of the savage, rather a mild and good-humored aspect. In keeping with his appearance, he displays a decided disposition to be sociable, and readily puts his nose through the bars to receive fragments of cake or other delicacies that are offered him by the children. Vegetable substances constitute his principal food, although he is occasionally driven by hunger to steal a pig. Sometimes he has been known to attack and kill even a cow. He is a noted depredator on maize and melon fields; honey is his delight. He is a great climber,

PSM V06 D299 Cinnamon bear.jpg
Fig. 3.—Cinnamon Bear (Ursus occidentalis).

and an assiduous searcher for "bee-trees," which he no sooner finds than climbs, proceeding to gnaw through the trunk to the nest of the bees. As soon as an aperture large enough to admit his paw has been made, honey, comb, and bees are scraped with avidity into his capacious mouth.

The black bear is common all over the eastern division of the United States, from Maine to Florida, and in fact over a large part of the Western territory. In the colder parts of this area it hibernates, but the habit does not seem to be general, at least with the males in the warmer parts. It is said that even in the cold latitudes it will not hibernate, unless it is fat at the beginning of the winter. The young, varying from one to four in number, are brought forth during hibernation in January or February. At first they are not more than six to eight inches long, and are covered with gray hair. They retain this color until the second year, when it gives place to black. The yellow Carolina bear is merely the young black bear assuming its distinctive color.

The black bear is much hunted for its skin, and the fat which constitutes the esteemed bear's-grease of commerce. Its numbers have been greatly diminished from this fact. Its flesh forms a good article of food, resembling pork, but with a peculiar flavor. Although easily tamed and naturally docile, it is a dangerous combatant when pursued and roused. The cinnamon bear (Ursus occidentalis) is a variety of the black bear, differing in color, as indicated by its name. It is found in California, and generally west of the Rocky Mountains.

PSM V06 D300 Malayan sun bear.jpg
Fig. 4.—Malayan Sun-Bear (Helarctos Malayanus.)

In the building to the west of the Museum we find a small female specimen of the Malayan sun-bear (Helarctos Malayanus). It no sooner observes us pause, than it rears up and extends its paw through the bars in a singularly imploring manner to induce us to give it some food. This, however, we are politely warned against doing by the following notice, "Please don't feed the animals!" which is placed against the cage. The Malayan bear is one of the smallest of the Ursidæ family, being at its greatest development only about four feet six inches long. Its color is deep black, with a yellowish muzzle and a white spot on the breast in the shape of a crescent with the horns turned up. The neck is shorter and thicker than in other species. Its diet is chiefly vegetable, the cocoa-nut being its favorite food. It is very destructive to the cocoa-nut groves, from its habit of devouring the succulent shoots that crown the tree. It is easily tamed, and becomes extremely docile and amusing. The name sun-bear (Helarctos) has been applied to the animal to indicate its habit of basking in the sun. The spectacled bear (Ursus ornatus), inhabiting the Cordilleras of South America, displays all the distinctive features of the Malayan species

PSM V06 D301 Spectacled bear.jpg
Fig. 5.—The Spectacled Bear (Ursus ornatus.)

except the semicircular white patches over the eyes which give it its name. The two are evidently varieties of the same species.

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is the most widely distributed of all the species. It is found throughout Europe and Northern Asia, from Scandinavia to the Himalayas. In size it is superior to the black bear of America, but inferior to the polar bear. The length is generally from about five feet, and the weight five to six hundred pounds, although it sometimes attains to seven or eight hundred pounds. The color is brown, slightly variable in tint with different individuals, and with the same individual at different ages. The neck of the younger animal is in some cases encircled by a white collar, which disappears as age increases. The prominence of the brow is much more marked than in other species, the soles longer, the claws smaller. It hibernates during the winter in caves and hollow trees, and, where these are not to be found, in holes dug into the earth and covered with moss. From one to four cubs are produced at a time. The principal food of the brown bear is vegetable substances, honey, and the larvae of the ant. Like the black bear, it is an excellent climber, and wages relentless warfare against the bees. The taste for animal food seems to be not altogether natural, but when once acquired is never lost. An individual having tasted blood will continue to depredate on the neighboring folds until he falls a victim to the indignation of the farmer.

It will occasionally attack man, especially in the colder parts of its range, and is always dangerous and ferocious in combat. The Scandinavians say in regard to this bear that it "has the strength of ten men and the sense of twelve." They also have a superstitious reverence for it, and habitually avoid saying "the bear" by using such appellations as the "old man with the fur cloak" the "disturber" the "dog of God" etc. The Indians of America have a similar reverence for the black bear. The killing of one is always followed by a religious ceremony designed to conciliate the manes of the dead animal. The head is decorated with trinkets and placed upon a blanket, where the successful hunter blows tobacco-smoke into the nostrils, and

PSM V06 D302 Brown bear.jpg
Fig. 6.—The Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).

makes a conciliatory speech, regretting the necessity for the killing. As an instance of the cunning of the brown bear, it is related that, when he is desirous of attacking man, the circle of fire, which proves such an effectual safeguard against other animals, is of no avail against him. He will not attempt to walk through the flames, but retiring, immersing himself in the nearest stream, will return and roll his body over the brands until the flames are smothered, when he will attack the sleeper. Yet for all this he is, when in good condition, a gentle and humorous fellow. Two children of a Siberian farmer, aged four and six respectively, one day wandered away from home. The parents, in searching for their children, were amazed to discover them at play with a large bear. One of the children was mounted upon the bear's back, while the other was feeding him with berries. The terrified parents began to scream, whereupon the bear quietly left the children and went into the wood. The brown bear is spread over Asia, from the Himalayas northward, but in different localities it undergoes slight modifications of color, and has therefore received different names; hence the Siberian bear (Ursus collaris), and the Syrian bear (U. Isabellinus). The former is said to have a white collar around the neck,

PSM V06 D303 Syrian bear.jpg
Fig. 7.—Syrian Bear (Ursus Isabelinus.)

which is probably the distinctive mark of the younger bear. In the latter, the brown color changes into a yellowish hue, from which the term Isabel bear is derived. The brown bear of the Himalayas is of the same species. It seems likely also that it inhabits the extreme north-western part of North America. Sir John Richardson relates having found in the barren lands lying to the northward and eastward of the Great Slave Lake, extending to the Arctic Sea bear which agrees with this in many respects. Still, nothing definite is known to establish the identity of the two.

One of the most curious members of the bear family is the Asiatic or sloth bear (Ursus labiatus). It is distinguished from other bears by the length of its hair, the length and flexibility of its lips, and the peculiar manner in which the fore-feet cross each other in walking. Its fur is deep-black, slightly flecked with brown, but it has a forked patch of white upon the breast. The hair from the head and neck hangs down over the face, and gives the animal a weird appearance. It seems to be subject to the early loss of its incisor teeth, from the absence of which, in the first specimens carried to England, it was supposed to be a species of gigantic sloth. It is almost wholly a vegetable feeder, and, it is said, will resort to animal food only in cases of extreme hunger. It is quite harmless unless retreat is cut off, when, like its relatives, it becomes savage and dangerous. The mother will fight bravely in defense of her young, which she usually carries upon her back until they have acquired strength enough to make good travelers. It is an inhabitant of the Himalayas, where it remains in caves during the day, and performs its rambles by night. This habit is attributed to the fact that the soles of its feet are covered by a skin so tender as to be easily blistered by the sun-heated rocks which constitute the surface of its mountain-home.

In the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) the bear family possesses an aquatic member. It is inferior in size only to the grizzly bear, and is scarcely second to him in strength and ferocity. Its color is silvery white, tinged with a slightly yellowish hue, which varies in intensity with different individuals. The neck is longer in proportion to the

PSM V06 D304 Asiatic or sloth bear.jpg
Fig. 8.—Asiatic or Sloth Bear (Ursus labiatus).

body than in any other bear, and the head is far smaller, and very much pointed. It is also characterized by almost entire absence of facial angle, there being a nearly unbroken line of descent from the forehead to the nose. The foot, also, is of greater comparative length, being about one-sixth the length of the body, while in the brown bear it is only one-tenth. The sole is covered with a thick fur, which enables the animal to tread firmly upon the ice. The claws are slightly curved, though not very long. They are quite black, so that they stand out in strong contrast with the fur surrounding them.

The polar bear is necessarily carnivorous, from the circumstances under which it exists, vegetable food being absent from its icy haunts; however, when captured and brought to warmer latitudes, it will subsist on a vegetable diet. It lives on fish and seals, and is said to occasionally capture a walrus. Its movements are remarkably quick. One was observed to dive from a block of ice and capture a passing salmon. Its mode of capturing the seal evidences much sagacity. Observing the position of the basking seal, it dives into the water and swims in that direction beneath the surface, occasionally sticking out its nose to "catch a breath." Proceeding thus, it rises at length close to the seal, which, cut off from the water, falls an easy prey, escape over the ice being impossible, on account of the swifter movements of the bear. This bear seldom attacks man if unmolested. The pregnant females hibernate, but the males and other females do not. The first scrapes a hole into the snow, where, buried as it were, she passes the winter, bringing forth her babies, generally two in number, during that time. The mother will always die before leaving her cubs in danger, and, if they be killed first, she is said to make a most affecting display of grief. The flesh of the polar bear is highly esteemed by the arctic voyagers as an article of food.

PSM V06 D305 Polar bear.jpg
Fig. 9.—Polar or White Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Scattered throughout Europe are the remains of extinct bears, usually found in caves, from which fact they are said to belong to the cave-bear. They have been divided into two species, Ursus spelæus and Ursus priscus. The former is larger than any living species. In a recent number of the Popular Science Review, Mr. A. Leith Adams, M.B., F.R.S., makes an interesting attempt to establish the identity of the grizzly and the Ursus spelæus. He thinks that the former was at one time common to Europe, and that the latter were only larger individuals of the same species. He was led to this conclusion from observations on the brown bear of the Himalayas, in which species he found that certain males occasionally grow much larger than the average, and that such are peculiarly addicted to living in caves, from which they seldom wander except for a few hours daily. It seems, also, that certain slight modifications of the skeleton occur in the overgrown individuals. Reasoning from analogy, he concludes that, when means of subsistence were abundant in Europe, it is likely that a similar peculiarity of excessive growth in certain individuals also characterized the grizzly species. This hypothesis, he thinks, sufficiently accounts for the difference in size, while the cave-loving habits of the larger individuals would explain the preservation of their remains. The Ursus priscus he regards as identical with the brown bear (Ursus arctos).

Regarding the distribution of bears, we have found the grizzly restricted to the Rocky Mountains and the adjacent plains; while the black bear takes his place in other parts of the North American Continent, except in the extreme northwest. The Malayan bear we found distributed over the archipelago that bears its name, the southern part of Asia, and even South America, though with slight modifications. The brown bear (Ursus arctos), we have seen, holds undisputed sway of Europe, of Asia north of the Himalayas, and that it probably extends even to the northwestern part of North America. And, in marked contrast with this wide range, we find the sloth-bear confined to the Himalayas, and the polar bear to the Arctic Ocean.