The remains of an ancient bear discovered in Canada’s High Arctic could shed light on how modern bears came to be, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The bones come from a close relative of modern bears known as Protarctos abstrusus. The extinct mammal — which lived 3.5 million years ago — was slightly smaller than the modern black bear and had a mix of both primitive and modern dental characteristics. Such features are important because it shows the species served as a transitional period between ancient and modern bears.
“This is evidence of the most northerly record for primitive bears, and provides an idea of what the ancestor of modern bears may have looked like,” said lead author Xiaoming Wang, head of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, according to Science Daily. “Just as interesting is the presence of dental caries, showing that oral infections have a long evolutionary history in the animals, which can tell us about their sugary diet, presumably from berries.”
In the study, a group of scientists from the National History Museum of Los Angeles and the Canadian Museum of Nature spent 20 years extracting the ancient bones from Ellesmere Island. They then analyzed the remains from the bear’s skull, jaw, and teeth.
That showed that, unlike most bear species, P. abstrusus could exploit the harsh, unforgiving northern forest environments. As a result, the ability to exist so high up may have characterized the ursine lineage and could reveal how it developed over time.
The specimen uncovered in the research had significant tooth decay as well. That suggests that bears’ distinct taste for sweet berries developed millions of years ago. Such information gives new insight into both the large mammals and their early ancestors.
“We know that modern bears consume sugary fruits in the fall to promote fat accumulation that allows for winter survival via hibernation,” said study co-author Natalia Rybczynski, a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature, according to UPI. “The dental cavities in Protarctos suggest that consumption of sugar-rich foods like berries, in preparation for winter hibernation, developed early in the evolution of bears as a survival strategy.”