A Great Big Bear

It’s got a really poor name.  Terrible, really.  The short-faced bear.  Better to call it the Plains Tyrant, or Rampaging Death, something to convey its size, power, and majesty.  Lord of the Land.  Almost anything would be a better name than the short-faced bear.

And what a bear it was. Arctodus simus is the latin name, for all you fans of nomenclature out there. Short-faced because, well, because it had a somewhat shortened muzzle.  But I’ll tell you what – you see one, you’ll know right away – instantly – that you’re looking at a bear.

A helluva big bear, too.  Listen to what Wickipedia says: “Arctodus simus may have once been Earth’s largest mammalian, terrestrial carnivore.”

Big.  Really big.  Stood six feet high at the shoulders.  For comparison, a grizzly stands about four feet high at the shoulders. Weighed up to a ton.  On its hind legs, standing, it may have been eleven feet tall.  And they’ve found its claw marks fifteen feet sbove the ground.

Arctodus simus reconstruction

Arctodus simus reconstruction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it was no lumbering beast.  It had long legs, longer proportionally than modern bears.  So it was fast, too – maybe 30, 35, maybe 40 miles per hour.

And, oh yeah, it appears that it was carnivorous.  Most modern bears (not the Polar bear, though) are omnivorous – eating plants, vegetation and some meat.  But not our bear.  The short-faced bear ate meat.  Lots of it.  Based on its size, its weight, it would have needed on the order of thirty five pounds of meat per day.

Its anatomy is interesting.  Its long legs gave it speed, but its build was such that it couldn’t twist and turn rapidly, running down prey.  Some scientists think that it was a kleptoparasite, and used its speed to come up to other predator’s kills, and its size to intimidate them – the dire wolves, the saber-toothed cats, the American lion – and drive them off the kill.

I suspect that it was opportunistic, scavenging, stealing the kills of other animals, but also hunting when the opportunity arose.

Gone now.  Extinct.  Died off about eleven thousand years ago.  Why?  No one yet knows.

Humans in Europe hunted cave bears.  It seems reasonable to  suppose that early humans here hunted them, too.  But the reason why they’ve become extinct is not known. In fact, even that sentence is somewhat misleading – there may have been not one, but multiple reasons for its extinction.

Here’s are two short excerpts from my novel, which deals with the short-faced bears:

The plains were endless, treeless, windswept.  The weather continued warm and dry. The grass was short, grazed by the herds we saw. The country was not flat, but rolling, like the swell on the ocean.  And so we’d see bison grazing on a far slope, or pronghorns, or small family bands of horses. 

Saw another bear-wolf interaction, too.  We came over a rise and saw that a pack of dire wolves had brought an old bull down.  They were snarling and eating, when over the far shoulder of the rise came a bear.  On the plains, all we saw were short-faced bears.  That is what I am referring to here.  We only saw grizzlies once we were up in the mountains.  Like the one we had seen before, it was enormous, pacing at a high rate of speed.  When it saw the carcass, though, it burst into a sprint, and man, it was fast.  It charged directly at the wolves surrounding the carcass, and they fled before it, snapping and yipping. 

But they didn’t go far.  They began circling the bear, now busily eating.  They rushed its rear, snapping and feinting.  The bear was forced to turn and turn again, to keep the wolves at bay.  One wolf – dark gray – bolder than the rest ran in and snapped onto the bear’s haunch and gave that savage head-twisting yank that dogs and wolves do.  The bear snarled, whirled, and slashed with its huge paw.  And connected. Its paw only seemed to brush the wolf’s flank, but the wolf tumbled fifteen or so feet away, and lay thrashing on the ground. But the remaining wolves continued pressing in, so that the bear was whirling continuously now, unable to eat, unable to rest.  Finally, the bear broke for it, and sprinted away, with several wolves at its heels.  They chased it farther than I would have thought, disappearing up and over the rise.  But shortly, all of them returned, and rejoined the pack, now gorging on the kill.

Here’s a riddle for you science buffs out there:  Wolves don’t hibernate.  Grizzlies do. Did the short-faced bear, a plains dwelling predator, hibernate? 

*****

             “Hey!”  We both heard it at the same time.  One of our guys, calling, loudly, urgently.  We galloped the rest of the way back to camp.

            Three of them, up in the trees.  Two horses down, the rest gone, scattered.  And a bear, a short-faced bear, was eating one of the horses it had killed.

            Lasher fired just before I did, and the bear went down.  It was old.  Its muzzle was graying, and one of its canines had broken off, and its jaw was infected. Still it was impressive.  The size of these animals – all of them – the lions, the bears, the sloths, still surprised me.  They were, quite simply, unlike anything I’d ever seen in my time, in the present.

            This bear had stood six feet high at the shoulder.  Its paws were far larger than my hand.  Unlike the claws of grizzly bears, its claws were not particularly long, and were blunted, presumably because of the running and trotting it did.  It was a much faster animal, built for more speed than the grizzly.  The name “short-faced bear” is, to my way of thinking, a misnomer.  Yes, it is true, that relative to other bears, its muzzle was not as long.  But it was certainly long enough.  Its head looked exactly like what it was – the head of a large, predatory bear.  An anatomist might see one and think, “my word, that bear has a notably short face,” but I’ll tell you, what I saw was a bear, a real big bear, length of face be damned.

            It took them a little while to climb down out of the trees. 

            “What happened?” Lasher asked.

            “Man, it was quick,” Devereaux said.  “The three of us were sitting around.  Me and Whister were talking, Collins was sitting over there, when all of a sudden we heard the horses start freaking out.  Then some of them ran through camp, then that bear exploded out of the woods, and knocked two of them down, Boom! Boom! Like that, with just two swipes of his paw!

            “I’d left my rifle and pistol in the tent, like an idiot, so I yelled at everyone to climb up in the trees.”

            “Didn’t really matter much, though.  The bear wasn’t interested in us.  He went over to that one horse you saw, and started eating. Man, I didn’t think I could climb high enough!”

            Try to visualize this.  You’re looking at a bear, a big, shaggy, brown-coated bear, which even standing on all fours is as tall as you, taller when he lifts up his head, and much, much taller when he stands on his hind legs.  And standing there, on all fours, as tall as you, he’s also long, as long as your kitchen table. Long, strong legs, with paws and claws, and a muzzle with big sharp teeth.  You see, this bear is as big as a horse, maybe bigger.  This is our bear.

And he’s fast, really fast. Probably not as fast as a horse on flat level ground, but bursting out from an ambush. . . .  And then, he is massively strong.  Those paws, swung with his immense weight behind them would have no trouble knocking a horse down, and, in this case, no trouble breaking its neck.  Or two necks as it turned out.  Both horses, dead.  One eviscerated, where he’d had started eating.

            All in all, this was bad.  The bear was too big to move, as were the horses.  The carcasses would draw predators from miles around.  So even though it was now late afternoon, we would have to move.  But we had no horses – they’d run off, and were scattered.  Not good.  And, of course, we had lost two of them permanently.

 

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