Category Archives: Arctic

Episode 162: Some Seals and the END OF THE WORRRRLLLDDDD

Thanks to Kim and Pranav for their unsettling suggestions for this episode! I swear the reason I decided to do this episode this week was to celebrate getting over my cold, but then I realized I needed to address the virus everyone is talking about right now. I hope you all stay well and safe out there!


Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I’m finally over my cold, so to celebrate let’s do a little bit of an unusual episode. Last year Kim suggested we do an episode about zoonotic diseases and diseases found in polar ice, and Pranav suggested an episode about what happens after humans go extinct. Those two topics seemed to go together, muahahaha.

Zoonotic diseases are diseases that humans can catch from other animals. Rabies is a good example, since it affects all mammals and is passed from one animal to another. In fact, let’s learn a little bit about rabies since naturally people are afraid of catching it but most people don’t know much about it.

Rabies is caused by a virus, specifically the lyssavirus. It acts on the body’s central nervous system, eventually infecting the brain. After that, it infects the salivary glands in order to be transmitted to other animals through a bite wound.

When an animal is infected with rabies, it may not show symptoms for a long time—sometimes years, although it’s more usually a few days to a few months. It starts as a fever and a headache, which are also symptoms of many other diseases. But within a few days of the first symptoms, the animal becomes aggressive, attempting to bite any other animal that it encounters. It has difficulty swallowing, which is why in cartoons animals with rabies are shown foaming at the mouth. This actually happens, but it doesn’t look like shaving cream and you’re not fooling anyone. The foam is just saliva that the animal can’t swallow. In the old days, rabies was called hydrophobia, which means fear of water, because in addition to not being able to swallow, the infected animal actually shows a fear of water. This all happens because the virus wants to be transmitted to other animals, and it does so through contact with infected saliva. If an infected animal could swallow its saliva and drink water, it would be much less likely to transmit rabies. So the virus hijacks the central nervous system to make the animal afraid of water and unable to swallow.

Of course, mammals can only live a few days without water, so once an animal reaches this stage it dies within a few days. Occasionally a human who contracts rabies and starts showing symptoms is rushed to the hospital and treated, but once they’ve reached the final stages of hydrophobia, it’s extremely rare that they survive even with the best medical care available.

So that’s horrifying. Some species of mammal are resistant to rabies and while they may get sick, they don’t usually die from it, including the vampire bat and the Virginia opossum. Birds can catch rabies but usually don’t show symptoms and recover without spreading it. Rabbits and hares, and many small rodents like guinea pigs and rats, almost never catch rabies and as far as researchers know, don’t pass the disease to humans.

And, of course, a vaccine was developed as long ago as 1885, with a more effective vaccine developed in 1967. The vaccine is mostly given to dogs, cats, and other pets, but humans who work with certain wild animals, like bats, are also given the vaccine. In some areas with widespread rabies among wild animals, vaccine-laced baits left for animals to find and eat have helped limit the spread of the disease.

If you are bitten by an animal, even if the animal doesn’t show symptoms of rabies, you should get the rabies vaccine and treatment as soon as possible. Rabies is most commonly spread to humans by dogs, especially stray dogs.

Feeling nervous yet?

What about diseases that spread from animals to humans that aren’t as well-known as rabies, or which appear to be new diseases? This is what has happened with the COVID-19 virus, also called the coronavirus, that has people worried at the moment. If you’re listening to this long after it came out and have no idea what COVID-19 is, at the time of release it’s March of 2020. Also, what’s the future like? Do we have flying cars yet?

The COVID-19 virus was first reported in China and researchers think it may have originated in bats, since it’s very similar to another coronavirus found in bats. There’s also some discussion that it may have originated in pangolins, or that there may be two strains of the disease. It’s still so early in the disease’s study that we don’t know for sure, but it does appear to be a zoonotic disease.

But how would a bat virus get into a human? It’s not like rabies where infected animals are trying to bite and infect others. I mean, when’s the last time a bat sneezed on you? Well, in parts of China people still catch and eat wild animals, including bats. Most of the initial cases of COVID-19 were in people who had gone to a market where bats and other animals were for sale as meat.

Wildlife trafficking is a source of many zoonotic diseases, and it doesn’t matter whether the animal is caught to be shipped live or killed and sold as meat or body parts. Not only is it really bad for endangered species, and of course for the individual animal killed, it also puts people at risk. China has put some stricter guidelines in place to limit the practice, and hopefully other countries will do the same.

COVID-19 is a virus with flu-like symptoms, spread the same way colds and flu are spread. While most people who catch it recover after a few weeks, it can be especially dangerous for people who already have other health issues. I know you’ve been told this constantly the last few weeks, but wash your hands with soap and hot water before you eat or rub your eyes or chew on that fingernail or pick your nose. Your mouth, nose, and eyes are lined with mucus membranes, which are easy for viruses to penetrate. Regular skin is too tough for the virus to get through. That’s also why you should cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, so no one breathes in the germy droplets you just sneezed out. Hopefully it won’t be long before a vaccine is developed, but until then, if you feel sick the best thing is to stay home and take care of yourself, and not go out and potentially get other people sick.

Right, that’s enough about your run-of-the-mill zoonotic diseases because we’re all feeling icky and nervous now. Let’s move on to diseases found in polar ice!

As you probably also know, right now the earth’s overall global temperature is rising. This is causing more ice to melt at the poles, including some of what’s called the permafrost. The permafrost is a layer of soil that remains frozen and never thaws out, or at least it doesn’t thaw completely for years—sometimes thousands and thousands of years. That kind of permafrost is mostly found near the north and south poles. But now that the earth is warming, more permafrost is starting to melt. That means everything in the permafrost is thawing out too. That includes bacteria and viruses that were frozen thousands of years ago.

Some bacteria and viruses can remain dormant in ice, then thaw out and be just fine. Researchers have found active viruses in dead bodies that are thawing after sometimes hundreds of years. The only known outbreak so far has been a case of anthrax in Siberia that spread to living reindeer from a thawed corpse of a reindeer that died some 75 years ago. The infected reindeer herd then spread the disease to some people living nearby, and one twelve-year-old boy died.

But anthrax is a well-known disease that’s still around today. What makes us all uneasy about this is that there might be unknown diseases or especially dangerous strains of known diseases that could spread to animals and people. So could that happen? Are we all DOOMED?

No, we’re not all doomed, no matter what you keep hearing on the news. Even if a virus or bacterium is fine after being thawed out, it still needs to find a host quickly or it will degrade and die anyway. The reason the anthrax virus was able to infect reindeer was because they were grazing in the area where the dead reindeer thawed out. That virus got lucky, but most don’t. The areas of the world with permafrost are ones that are difficult to live in, so there aren’t as many animals around in the first place. There are even fewer people. Instead of being worried about catching a disease from permafrost, we should probably worry about other issues stemming from climate change. If you’re like me, of course, you can manage to worry about EVERYTHING at once, but you can put polar ice diseases near the bottom of the list.

Of course, there is another aspect of melting ice and disease. In 2004 some sea otters in Alaska were diagnosed with a version of distemper that was only known from eastern North America and Europe. This population of sea otters had never been anywhere but in Alaska, so how did they catch the virus? It wasn’t until researchers noticed that outbreaks of distemper corresponded with the melting of Arctic sea ice that they realized that infected animals from other parts of the country were moving west into newly ice-free territories, spreading the virus to otters that wouldn’t have been exposed otherwise. This particular strain of distemper affects otters, seals, and other marine mammals. It’s dangerous enough that conservationists are now vaccinating Hawaiian monk seals against distemper just in case it spreads to them, since only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals are alive to start with.

We haven’t talked about any particular kind of animal yet this episode, so let’s learn about those seals. The Hawaiian monk seal lives around the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific Ocean, but its closest relatives, the Mediterranean monk seal and the extinct Caribbean monk seal, are both native to the Atlantic Ocean.

Hawaii, of course, is an archipelago of 137 volcanic islands, most of them quite small, that span 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km. Seven of the eight biggest islands are the ones where humans live, and many of the islands are part of a protected marine wildlife reserve. The oldest island in the archipelago is probably 28 million years old, while the youngest, which is actually called Hawai’i or just the Big Island, is only about 400,000 years old and is still volcanically active. There’s another volcanic island southeast of Hawai’i that’s still growing underwater, too.

All the islands are so far away from any continent that there are only two mammals native to the area, the Hawaiian monk seal and a species of bat. The bat probably colonized the islands after being blown there by storms, but how did seals whose ancestors were native to the Atlantic reach these islands in the middle of the Pacific? The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are separated by two big continents on either side. Even humans didn’t settle on Hawaii until 1700 years ago at most.

Before around 3 or 4 million years ago, though, North America and South America were separate continents with a seaway between. It wasn’t until around 3 million years ago that the Isthmus of Panama formed as two tectonic plates collided, forming volcanic islands and pushing the land up. When the oceans were finally separated by this new land, it stopped marine animals from being able to pass back and forth, but of course it also allowed land animals to pass between North and South America, the Great American Interchange which we’ve talked about in previous episodes from time to time. The Hawaiian monk seal’s ancestors probably lived in the shallow seaway between North and South America, and around three million years ago one population was cut off from the rest. That population eventually migrated to the Hawaiian islands and evolved into the seals that live there today.

The Hawaiian monk seal mostly lives around the smaller islands, although sometimes it comes to the larger ones. It’s gray with a pale belly, and a big female can grow up to 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, while males are a little smaller. Babies are born with black hair. Most of the time the seal is in the water, hunting fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans, but for about ten days out of the year it spends most of its time on land because that’s when it molts. It doesn’t just shed its hair, it also sheds the outer layer of its skin. This is probably itchy and uncomfortable until the new hair and skin grow back. The seal can hold its breath for up to 20 minutes and can dive deeply, but it usually hangs out in shallow water around the islands. It usually sleeps on the beach but sometimes in underwater caves where there’s trapped air to breathe. It also gives birth on the beach. I have to say, it sounds like it has a pretty sweet life, except the part where sharks eat it.

In the 19th century many species of seal, including the Hawaiian monk seal, were either driven extinct or nearly driven extinct by hunters. The hunters wanted the oily fat that seals produce to keep them warm in cold water, which burns really well. Fortunately, once electricity was invented and became widespread, no one wanted to burn stinky whale and seal oil for light. But many species of seal, just like many species of whale, are still having trouble recovering. The Hawaiian monk seal is so endangered that conservationists provide veterinary care when appropriate, especially to young seals that are injured by aggressive older males and by fishing equipment. And, of course, they also provide vaccines to protect the seals from diseases like distemper.

Let’s finish up with Pranav’s question. What will happen after humans go extinct?

That won’t happen for a very, very long time—hopefully millions of years, if we’re careful with our resources and wash our hands. But everything ends eventually. One day we’ll all be gone but the earth will continue without us until the sun burns out and becomes a red giant, destroying the inner planets of our solar system. That won’t be for another 5 billion years or so, so you don’t need to lie awake and worry about it happening any time soon. The earth is only about 4 ½ billion years old now so it’s probably not even halfway through its lifespan.

In the meantime, continental drift will continue to happen just as it always has. Australia will eventually crunch into eastern Asia. Africa will merge into Europe. The Americas might end up squished up with Europe and Africa again, or they might end up merging with Asia on the other side of the landmass. Either way, there will probably be another supercontinent for a while, until the tectonic plates start separating again in their constant, slow dance. Oceans will expand and contract, mountains will build up and wear down, and through it all, for thousands of millions of years, animals of all kinds will continue to evolve.

When I was a kid, I had a book called After Man by Dougal Dixon, which speculated about what animals would look like in the future. I remember being kind of disappointed that they mostly didn’t look too different from the animals we have today. Rabbits were going to do well, I remember that. But of course that’s just speculation, and we can’t possibly know what will evolve in the future. It is fun to wonder, though. Mammals have been going strong for a long time now, but that doesn’t mean they always will. Various extinction events will occur as they always have, wiping out the dominant species and opening up ecological niches for new species to evolve. It might be birds next instead of mammals. It might be reptiles again. It might be something else that hasn’t even evolved yet.

I know we all secretly want to go back in time to see what dinosaurs and other extinct animals really looked like. But we’re very lucky to be alive right now. Travel is reasonably safe, quick, and inexpensive compared to how it used to be in the olden days, so we can go to different parts of the world and see animals where they live. If we can’t travel far, we can go to zoos where animals are usually kept in habitats that mimic their natural habitats as much as possible. We can watch high-quality videos of animals in the wild. We can listen to podcasts that talk about how we’re all going to die one day, sorry about that. We even happen to live at the same time as the largest animal ever known to live, the blue whale, which always just blows my mind. We are so lucky that the blue whale is still around and wasn’t killed off for whale oil along with all those seals!

And, best of all, we know a lot more about how the world works these days. We know the mistakes we’ve made in the past, like killing whales and seals for oil, and we know how to make things better in the future for everyone, people and animals alike. So instead of worrying too much about what horrible things might happen, do your best to make the world a better place every day and wash your hands with soap and warm water. Whenever you do start to worry, just think about a blue whale swimming around in the ocean happily eating krill, or a Hawaiian monk seal lounging on a sunny Hawaiian beach. I think I need a vacation.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 117: The Linsang and the Walrus

Thanks to Sam and Damian this week for their great suggestions! This week we’re going to learn about the Asiatic linsang (both banded and spotted linsangs) and the walrus!

The banded linsang looks like a realllly stretched-out cat:

The walrus is not so stretched out:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about two mammals that are not related and have nothing to do with each other, but they’re both really interesting. Thanks to Sam and Damian for your suggestions!

First, Sam suggested the banded linsang, describing it “as if someone took a particularly pointy cat and just stretched it reaaaaaaaallly far while also squishing it down”

The banded linsang does look a lot like a cat with a very long ringed tail, but what is it really? Before we answer that, let’s find out a little more about it.

The banded linsang is about the size of a slender cat, but with shorter legs and a much longer body, just as Sam described. It lives in many parts of southeastern Asia and prefers forests, where it hunts for small animals like rodents, lizards and other reptiles, small birds, and insects. It’s nocturnal and secretive, which means we don’t know a whole lot about it, but we do know that it spends a lot of its time in trees. It has a face that somewhat resembles a weasel’s or cat’s, but with a longer muzzle. Its ears are small, its eyes are large, and it has small, neat paws with retractable claws like a cat. It’s tan or cream-colored with a darker face, and has a pattern of large black or dark brown spots that make rows down its back and sides, with smaller spots on its legs. Its catlike tail is as long as its body and its neck is really long too. It sort of looks like a weasel mixed with a cat.

The banded linsang is closely related to the spotted linsang, which looks very similar but instead of big blotchy spots, it usually has smaller spots all over its body. The spotted linsang lives farther north than the banded linsang but still in southeastern Asia.

Together, both the spotted and banded linsangs are called Asiatic linsangs. There are two species of linsang that live in Africa, but they’re actually not closely related to the Asiatic linsangs.

Until genetic studies were conducted a few years ago, researchers thought both African and Asiatic linsangs were related to genets. That wasn’t a bad guess since genets look a lot like linsangs, slender, spotted catlike animals with long ringed tails, and they even have claws that are partly retractable. But DNA studies show that while the genet and the African linsangs are fairly closely related, the Asiatic linsangs are more closely related to the cat family.

Because we don’t know much about the Asiatic linsangs, that’s just about all I’ve got for you. So let’s move on to Damian’s suggestion, the walrus!

We do know a lot about the walrus, and it’s an amazing animal. It lives in the Arctic Circle in shallow water just off the coast and spends most of its time in the water or sitting on ice floes like it doesn’t even notice its skin is touching ice.

The walrus is a pinniped, which means it’s related to seals and sea lions, but it’s the only member of its own family currently alive today. There are two subspecies, one that lives on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, one that lives on the Pacific side of the Arctic.

The walrus is enormous. A big male can grow up to about 16 feet long, or almost 5 meters, and some unusually large males are estimated to weigh as much as 5,000 lbs, or 2,300 kg. That’s 2 ½ tons, or almost twice as much as my car weighs. Females are smaller, typically only 12 feet long, or 3.6 meters, and only weigh up to about 1,800 pounds, or 800 kg.

The walrus’s skin is thick and wrinkly—really thick. Like, almost four inches thick in places, or ten cm. Underneath the skin, the walrus has a thick layer of blubber just like whales do, which keeps it warm in cold water. Its skin looks bare of fur, but it does have some thin hair that isn’t very noticeable, like the hairs on your arm. It does have bristly whiskers that help it find food underwater. The bristles are very sensitive, so that the walrus can find clams and other mollusks even if it can’t see them.

The walrus eats a lot of things, including crabs, sea cucumbers, and shrimp, but it especially likes clams. Its mouth is specially adapted to eat clams, which is does by clamping its mouth over the clam and sucking in so hard that it actually sucks the clam’s body right out of its shell, no matter how hard the clam tries to keep its shell closed.

The walrus is so big that the only animals that eat it are polar bears and orcas, and they don’t eat it very often. Polar bears will sometimes charge at a bunch of walruses on a beach, startling them into rushing toward the ocean. The polar bear isn’t actually trying to catch one of the walruses, it’s just trying to get them to trample a smaller or already injured walrus and leave it behind. Then the bear can kill and eat it. But for the most part, a full-grown walrus is a match for a polar bear. Both male and female walruses have tusks that can grow over three feet long, or one meter, with those of the male being slightly thicker and longer than the females’.

Those tusks were a big part of why walruses are endangered these days. The tusks are ivory, the same material that elephant tusks are made of, and for some reason humans really like ivory. In the 18th and 19th centuries, so many walruses were killed for their tusks and the fatty oil in their bodies that they almost went extinct. Fortunately, the hunting of walruses is now banned except for native populations, who only kill small numbers of walruses using traditional hunting methods.

A walrus uses its tusks for more than just defending itself against polar bears and orcas. It drags them through the sediment at the bottom of the ocean to stir up any small animals that may be hiding there. It uses them like ice picks to help haul itself out of the water onto land or just move around on land, and it even props the tusks on a piece of ice to help keep its head above water while it sleeps. It also has an air sac in its throat that it can inflate to help its head stay out of water, like a built-in life jacket. It even uses its tusks to break holes through ice.

The walrus has flippers instead of arms and legs, which means it can swim quite well but is awkward on land. It dives to find its food and can stay underwater for half an hour at a time, but it isn’t a deep diver. Its hind flippers look like a tail at first glance, but the walrus actually only has a short little nub of a tail. What looks like a tail in the water are its hind flippers, which are modified feet and still have five claws. When the walrus gets out of the water, it rotates its hind flippers around so it can walk on all fours.

Researchers once believed that an ancient walrus that went extinct 13 million years ago was a so-called killer walrus, a carnivore that preyed on small whales and seals. We don’t know much about Pelagiarctos because all we have are some jaw bones and not a full skeleton, but the teeth in those jaws resemble carnivore teeth. But according to a study published in 2016, researchers examined the teeth and compared them to those of modern seals and sea lions, and discovered that they weren’t nearly as strong as they look. They certainly weren’t strong enough to bite through bones without cracking, so researchers now think that Pelagiarctos probably ate small animals like fish and squid.

The common ancestor of the walrus and other pinnipeds lived on land but spent a lot of time in the water, and probably looked a lot like an otter. It lived around 20 million years ago but may have still been around as recently as five million years ago. It lived in the Arctic, but back then the climate in the Arctic was more temperate than it is today. It had webbed feet, grew about three and a half feet long, or 110 cm, and had a long tail and short legs.

Fossils of a more recent ancestor of the walrus have been found in Japan, dating to around 10 million years ago. It probably looked a lot like the modern walrus with two big exceptions. It was about half the size of the walrus and it didn’t have tusks, just regular sharp teeth like seals have.

We’re still learning about the ancestors of pinnipeds, with a number of walrus ancestor fossils discovered in the last decade or so. Researchers think about ten million years ago, the ancestors of walruses started to diversify into many different species. At the time, ocean levels were lower than they are today. When the sea levels rose, the various species of walrus became separated from each other by deep water. Some of the species went extinct, but one survived and evolved into the modern walrus. Thank goodness we didn’t kill them all off for their tusks!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 042: Mystery Bears

This week we’re going to learn about bears, including a bunch of m y s t e r y  b e a r s!

Hi! I am a panda bear!

A polar bear:

A spectacled bear:

A baby spectacled bear OMG LOOK AT THAT BABY:

The giant short-faced bear was indeed giant:

Further reading:

Shuker Nature

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I’m in the mood for a bona fide mystery animal, and I bet you are too. So this week let’s learn about some mystery bears.

There are eight species of bears alive today that we know of: brown, polar, spectacled, sloth, sun, Asian and American black bears, and the giant panda. The other ones you may have heard of, like grizzlies, are subspecies of those eight. For a long time pandas were not considered bears at all, but more closely related to raccoons. These days they’re definitely in the bear box, but they’ve evolved in a completely different direction from other bears for some 19 million years, which is why they’re so different.

Before we get into the mysteries, let’s talk about just how different pandas are from other bears. As you probably know, the panda eats bamboo almost exclusively, unlike all other bears which are either omnivorous or, in the case of the polar bear, carnivorous. To survive on bamboo, the panda has evolved a lot of unusual adaptations. The front paws, for instance, have five toes just like all bears, and also a thumb. The thumb is actually a modified wrist bone that juts out from the base of the paw and helps the panda hold bamboo stalks as it eats the leaves.

Bamboo is not very nutritious. It’s certainly low in protein, especially considering that while the panda eats almost nothing but bamboo, it still has the digestive system of a carnivore. Special microbes in the panda’s intestines help break down the bamboo so the panda can digest it, but it takes a lot of bamboo to provide the energy a panda needs. A panda eats 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo leaves, stems, and shoots every day, or 9-14 kg, which means it also poops a whole lot. Seriously, it poops something like 40 times a day. And it still doesn’t have a lot of energy. It mostly just sits around eating and pooping. But while the panda just chews leaves all the time, it still has bear fangs and it will eat meat and eggs when it can. Researchers think that the panda only became exclusively a bamboo eater about two million years ago.

The panda lives in the mountains of China in only a few places. It used to also live in the lowlands but farming and other development drove it into more remote areas. There are about 50 pandas in captivity these days and somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 pandas in the wild, with the population finally increasing after laws protecting pandas from poaching started to be enforced.

The people of China knew about the panda for centuries, although they were considered rare and elusive even in the olden days, but it wasn’t until 1869 that anyone from outside of China had a clue that gigantic roly-poly black and white bamboo-eating six-toed bears were real. Seriously, would you believe that? In 1869 a French missionary and naturalist bought a dead panda from some hunters, dissected it to study, and sent the skin to a zoologist friend in Paris.

So it’s possible that there are other mystery bears out there, known to the locals who don’t realize their bears are special, just waiting to be spotted by someone who knows a thing or two about bears.

In 1920 a Swedish scientist named Sten Bergman was shown the pelt of a bear by locals during an expedition to the Kamchatka Peninsula. That’s in the very eastern part of Russia on the Pacific coast and is sparsely populated. It’s mountainous with a cluster of active volcanos and it’s well known for the brown bears that live in the area. The Kamchatka brown bears are among the largest brown bear subspecies in the world, almost the size of the closely related Kodiak brown bear. When it stands on its hind legs it can be almost ten feet tall, or 3 meters. It’s mostly harmless to humans. Mostly. It hardly ever kills people. Just, you know, occasionally. The Kamchatka brown bears have long brown fur, sometimes pale brown but usually a sort of medium brown. They’re certainly not black. But the pelt that Dr. Bergman was shown was jet black and had short fur. But it was definitely a bear pelt, and the pelt was definitely enormous—much larger than a brown bear pelt. Bergman also saw a huge skull supposedly from one of the black bears, and a paw print 15” long and 10” wide, or 38 cm by 25 ½ cm.

Unfortunately none of the giant black bears have turned up since, living or dead. It’s possible that the bear was an unusually large brown bear with anomalous fur. Brown bears do have considerable variability in both the color and length of their fur, so it’s not out of the question that occasionally a brown bear is born that is actually black. It’s also possible that this black bear is actually a different species of bear, but that it’s either gone extinct or is extremely rare and only lives in far remote areas of Siberia these days.

But the Kamchatka Peninsula has another mystery bear for us to ponder. In 1987 a hunter named Rodion Sivolobov bought a giant white bear skin from locals. It looked like a big polar bear pelt, but the locals assured him it was from a very specific, very rare type of local bear.

They called it the irkuiem and described it as large but with a relatively small head, relatively short hind legs, and an unusual method of running. It supposedly runs in a sort of rocking motion, bringing both hind legs up to the forelegs, then throwing the forelegs forward together to start a new stride–more like a rabbit’s bounding run than a bear’s typical gait.

Sivolobov sent samples of the pelt to various zoologists in Russia, but they said there wasn’t much they could determine without a skull. But with DNA testing so much more advanced these days, it would be REALLY NICE if Sivolobov would get right on that and get his white bear pelt tested. If it really exists and if he’s not scared he was sold a marked-up polar bear skin with a tall tale.

The polar bear lives in the Arctic and is so closely related to the brown bear that the two species occasionally crossbreed when their range overlaps. Technically polar bears are marine mammals since they hunt seals on sea ice and spend a lot of time in the water. Sometimes a polar bear will drift for long distances on a piece of sea ice, or may swim for days, crossing hundreds of miles of ocean.

Polar bear feet are huge, around 12 inches wide or 30 cm, which helps keep the bear from sinking in the snow since its weight is more widely distributed on broad paws. Think snowshoes. Broad feet also helps it swim faster. The paw pads are bumpy so it’s less likely to slip on ice, and the claws are short and strong for digging in snow and ice. The polar bear stays warm because its body is heavily insulated with fat, plus its fur is thick with a soft undercoat that insulates so well that polar bears really are virtually invisible to heat-sensing radar. Male polar bears grow long fur on their forelegs, apparently because lady polar bears find that attractive. Unlike most other bears, polar bears don’t hibernate.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was a German naturalist who took part in explorations of Kamchatka Peninsula and other areas. He’s the guy that Steller’s sea-cow is named after and one day it’s getting its own episode. Anyway, in 1751 Steller wrote a book called, in English, Beasts of the Sea, and in it he mentions a report of a white sea-bear. He didn’t see it himself, but here’s his account, which I’ve taken from Karl Shuker’s excellent blog ShukerNature. I’ll link to it in the show notes.

Here’s the quote:

“Report, as I gather from the account of the people, has declared that the sea-bear, as it is called by the Rutheni and other people is different. They say it is an amphibious sea beast very like a bear, but very fierce, both on land and in the water. They told likewise, that in the year 1736 it had overturned a boat and torn two men to pieces; that they were very much alarmed when they heard the sound of its voice, which was like the growl of a bear, and that they fled from their chase of the otter and seals on the sea and hastened back to land. They say that it is covered with white fur; that it lives near the Kuril Islands, and is more numerous toward Japan; that here it is seldom seen. I myself do not know how far to believe this report, for no one has ever seen one, either slain or cast up dead upon the shore.”

Shuker suggests that this report may actually be of a fur seal, which is found in the area and has sometimes been called a sea-bear. Then again, fur seals aren’t white. They’re gray or brown and would appear darker in the water.

The Kuril Islands are a string of 56 volcanic islands that stretch between the northeastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan to the southern tip of Kamchatka Peninsula, a distance of about 810 miles, or 1300 km. Some of the largest islands are inhabited by brown bears, but it’s far from the Arctic. Polar bears get overheated easily in warmer areas, so a population of polar bears—or even a stray one—is unlikely that far south.

There are also stories of pure white bears in the forests of Hubei province in China. It’s always possible this is a garbled account of the panda, but maybe not.

In 1864, Inuit hunters supposedly killed a huge bear with yellowish fur. Naturalist Roderick McFarlane acquired the skin and skull and sent them to the Smithsonian, which promptly lost them. That’s the story, anyway. In fact, the Smithsonian did misplace the skin and skull for a while, but zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam found and examined them. He decided it was a new species of bear due to the skull’s odd shape and the light tan color of the fur.

Older polar bears do tend to have yellowish fur so maybe that’s all this bear was. But it might have been something else. As I mentioned earlier, polar bears and various subspecies of brown bear do sometimes crossbreed and produce fertile young. It’s rare, but it happens occasionally both in the wild and in captivity. The resulting babies show traits of both polar bears and brown bears, and tend to be pale brown or tan in color with darker brown paws. Then again, there’s a MonsterQuest episode that I haven’t actually seen where a paleontologist examines the McFarlane skull and states it’s just that of a young female brown bear.

For having only eight species, bears are remarkably widespread and vary considerably in diet and appearance. The sloth bear mostly eats insects, for instance. It lives in India and has shaggy black fur with a pale muzzle and white claws, big floppy ears, and a white V-shaped mark on the chest. It lacks upper incisors, which helps it slurp up insects.

Sloth bears are actually pretty darn awesome. Males often help raise the cubs and mothers carry their babies around on their backs. The sloth bear doesn’t hibernate, probably because it doesn’t really get cold where it lives.

The spectacled bear lives in South America. It’s the last close relative of the giant short-faced bear that went extinct about 11,000 years ago. The spectacled bear is mostly black, although some individuals may appear brown or reddish, and most but not all have lighter markings on the face and chest. Its head is much less bearlike than other bears, with a rounded face and short snout. It mostly eats plants and lives in the Andes Mountains and surrounding areas. It spends a lot of time in trees, and will even build a little platform in a tree to sleep on or store food on.

And you know what? Paddington Bear is modeled on the spectacled bear.

The spectacled bear is not especially scary. Its relative, the giant short-faced bear, was another story. It lived in North America, especially in California, and its remains have been found in the La Brea tar pits. But it also lived as far south as Mississippi. And it was huge. It was simply enormous. It stood up to 6 feet at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters, and twice that when standing on its hind legs. One website I read pointed out that regulation height for a basketball rim is ten feet, which means a giant short-faced bear could dunk the ball every time without doing anything more strenuous than standing up. It was probably an omnivore like most modern bears, but we have mastodon bones that show tooth marks from the short-faced bear.

Naturally, as with just about any extinct animal, people keep hoping they’re not really extinct and occasionally someone reports seeing a giant short-faced bear. Some cryptozoologists speculate that the Kamchatka Peninsula mystery bears may actually be short-faced bears, but since short-faced bear fossils have only been found in North America, it’s probably not likely that there would be any living in Russia. Besides, the short-faced bear would have looked very different from the brown bear, probably shaped more like a colossal spectacled bear. Locals would definitely notice the difference. Moreover, it’s not likely to live in the same area that already has a population of brown bears, since both animals would then be competing for the same resources.

Personally, while the giant short-faced bear is awesome to imagine, I’m perfectly happy with it not wandering around in the forests. Because I like to hike. And I worry enough about the relatively small and harmless American black bear as it is.

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