Ancient fossil offers new clues to brown bears past

Fairbanks, AlaskaWhile nosing around the Quaternary mammal collection at the Provincial Museum of Alberta two years ago, Paul Matheus, a paleontologist with the Alaska Quaternary Center, came across a brown bear fossil that seemed out of place. The fossil had been collected by Jim Burns, curator of Quaternary mammals at the PMA a few years earlier near Edmonton, Alberta, in gravels that date to before the last ice age (older than 24,000 years). If this was true, Matheus thought, it could be a very important find. Burns loaned the specimen to Matheus so he could take it back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to confirm its age using radiocarbon dating methods. Results showed the bear was indeed about 26,000 years old, and the two researchers realized the fossil's signficance--the history of brown bears in North America would have to be rewritten.

The ancestors of modern brown bears in North America are believed to have migrated from Asia to Alaska and Yukon (then a part of Beringia) between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, and old brown bear fossils are not particularly uncommon in Beringia. Between roughly 13,000-23,000 years ago, the route from Beringia to areas of the continent further south was blocked by continental glaciers, so brown bears were more or less bottled up in Beringia. The oldest brown bear fossils south of Beringia, in areas like southern Canada and the northern U.S., are about 12,000-13,000 years old, so paleontologists concluded that's when they first arrived.

"It's always been a mystery, though, why brown bears didn't migrate farther south if they were in Beringia as early as 100,000 years ago and the passage south wasn't blocked by glaciers until about 23,000 years ago," said Matheus. "The discovery of the Edmonton specimen indicates that brown bears migrated south much earlier than previously thought."

The recent findings and their implications, are the subject of an article in the Nov. 12 issue of the journal Sc

Contact: Paul Matheus
University of Alaska Fairbanks

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