Scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County have identified specimens of a 3.5-million-year-old bear from a fossil-rich locality in Canada’s High Arctic. Their research reveals not only that the animal is a close relative of the ancestor of modern bears, tracing its ancestry to extinct bears of similar age from East Asia but that it also had a sweet tooth, as defined by cavities in the teeth.
In a report issued this week in the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists recognize the bear as Protarctos abstrusus, tracing its ancestry to extinct bears of similar age from East Asia. It was earlier only known from a tooth found in Idaho.
The animal was somewhat smaller than a modern black bear average males of which weigh 160 kilograms, with unusually large ones tipping the scale at more than 272 with a flatter head and a mixture of primitive and advanced dental features. Scientists from the Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum and Canadian Museum of Nature classified the remains of the animal.
They were able to study recovered bones from the teeth, jaws, and skull as skeleton parts from two individuals. The team could trace the ancestry of the fossil to extinct bears, which prevailed during the same time in East Asia.
“This is proof of the most northerly record for primitive bears and provides an idea of what the ancestor of modern bears may have looked like,” researcher Xiaoming Wang stated in the museum statement. “Just as exciting is the presence of dental, showing that oral infections have a long evolutionary history in the animals, which can tell us about their sugary diet, presumably from berries. This is the first and earliest documented occurrence of a high-calorie diet in basal bears, likely correlated to fat storage in preparation for the harsh Arctic winters.”
The find is important because all other fossils of ancient ursine bears as well as a few modern species of the animal like the sun bear and the sloth bear are linked to milder habitats in lower-latitude. The Protarctos abstrusus, therefore, shows that surviving the harshest environments of northern forests is not single to modern black bears and grizzlies, and may have been a character of the ursine line from its evolutionary origin.