Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (December 2006)

Historical Note: Inopinatus—The Unexpected

By George G. Goodwin
Associate Curator, Department of Mammals, American Museum of Natural History

From Natural History, November 1946
(Thanks to Kevin Stewart for locating this.)

Here—on the Arctic tundra along the polar shores of Franklin Bay—you may meet a rugged, sunbleached inhabitant of Canada's Western Northland, the Barren Ground Grizzly. "The characteristic disposition of this formidable animal may be fairly judged from experience," wrote that famous old naturalist and Arctic explorer, Roderick R. Macfarlane, in his appended notes to Through the Mackenzie Basin. He was thinking perhaps of a particular incident that occurred some 82 years ago when two natives of Franklin Bay met and slew a great yellow bear. In his notebook Macfarlane wrote: "About three weeks previous to our arrival at Franklin Bay, in the end of June 1864, two Eskimo hunters observed a brown bear at some distance, and being, for them, well armed, they went forward to meet it and did their best to annoy it by uttering very loud and shrill cries. They made a stop, however, at a driftwood stand, shortly before constructed by them for the purpose of shooting therefrom at passing geese and swans, and there prepared for action. One of them carried a Hudson Bay single-barreled flintlock gun, and the other a spear formed by firmly attaching a long knife of Eskimo make to the end of a somewhat slender pole about six feet in length. When the bear had closely approached them, it was shot and severely wounded, which, of course, made it perfectly furious, and it came on so very quickly that there was no time to reload the gun; but just as it was about to spring at and close with the man who had fired the gun at it, the other man struck fiercely at it with his spear, and both soon dispatched it with their knives. This animal will not only hug and if possible crush any unfortunate falling into its clutches but will also bite with its sharp teeth and scratch viciously with its powerful claws, as Indians and Eskimos have occasionally experienced to their cost."

The bear was duly skinned, the hide cured, and the following spring shipped along with its skull to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. For Macfarlane, the incident was now closed. Neither he nor the two Eskimos who killed the bear had noticed any significant peculiarities about this particular bear. To them it was just another Barren Ground Grizzly. In the course of time it arrived in Washington and was eventually catalogued, No. 1979 of the Macfarlane collection, skin No. 8706 and skull No. 7149, collected June 24, 1864.

For more than 50 years this yellow bear lay unnoticed in the archives of the United States National Museum. At last, when a sufficient number of big bears had been accumulated to warrant a review of the species, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, dean of American naturalists, came across Macfarlane's specimen. This was no ordinary Barren Ground Grizzly. Nor was its unique yellow coat the basic character that separated it from all other living species. Because of the peculiar formation of the teeth, Dr. Merriam recognized it as a new genus and named it Velularctos [sic] inopinatus— "unexpected." He discerned resemblances between it and the extinct giant bears Actotherium and Tremarctos.

It was indeed fortunate that this eminent scientist made his discovery and was able to tell the world of this surprising creature just two years before Macfarlane's death.

A search through the published notes and records of early explorers has added little or nothing to our knowledge of this patriarchal bear. However, a significant paragraph in Casper Whitney's book, On Snow-shoes to the Barren Grounds, published some 50 years ago, is interesting even if it does not prove that he himself met with this particular bear. Whitney, who had ap­parently seen a Barren Ground Grizzly at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote, "A bear is found on the Anderson River, which is near the Rocky Mountains, that corresponds to this one and it is possible it may make out into the Barrens in the summer time, but I doubt if it is more than a visitor, and am convinced its real home is much nearer the mountains. It is a peculiar looking bear, seeming a cross between the grizzly and the polar, and it has this peculiarity, that its hind claws are as big as the fore claws, while its head looks somewhat like that of an Eskimo dog, very broad in the forehead, with square, long muzzle, and ears set on quite like the dog's. It is very wide at the shoulders, and its robe in color resembles the grizzly."

Where shall we turn for further light on this remarkable survivor? R. M. Anderson of the Canadian National Museum believes that it is not extinct, as its habitation is in the remote realm of "No Man's Land," the edge of which is seldom reached by Indian or Eskimo. It is possible that more of its kind may still roam this vast Arctic tundra of Northern Canada. But it is more likely that, as Ernest Thompson Seton said, "this was, like Macfarlane, himself, the last of a rugged, heroic wilderness race, and it survived providentially to fall in his hands and furnish him a monument in the records of the Bears of by­gone days."

Although this strange bear has not a great deal in common with the extinct giant bears Actotherium and Tremarctos, the resemblances were sufficient to suggest that Macfarlane's specimen might claim an ancient line of descent quite different from the one that gave its the better-known bears of today.

Anyone who has associated with the friendly Indians of the Northwest has probably, at some time or other, heard them tell the story of a huge bear that in times past made protracted raids in their country. Strangely enough, I find no reference to this legendary story in literature, though Seton, Macfarlane, and other noted explorers, must have been familiar with it.

No matter where you go, in the wilderness of the upper Yukon, on the barren wastes beyond Great Slave Lake, or the rugged mountain passes in British Columbia, the basic facts of this story are always the same. As much as these Indians love to tell exciting stories of wildlife and their hunting experiences, I have always found them dependable and truthful. At first, they were reluctant to tell this story of their fathers, seemingly a little skeptical themselves and doubtful of the white man's readiness to believe it. But eventually, sitting around the camp fire, one gleans the story of a great carnivorous animal resembling a bear, which can kill a moose with one stroke of its huge paws and carry it away as easily as a lynx can carry a rabbit

If the listeners seem not too skep­tical, the Indians will continue to tell how, after one of these bears had raided the country, you can follow its trail by the blood spattered on the upper branches of the trees, until eventually it is lost beyond the timber line. Where the beasts came from or went, none of the Indians seem to know. The story no doubt has some truth and could have originally been brought by visiting Indians from the West where the huge Kodiak bear, the largest living carnivorous animal in the world, towers above the stunted trees of the Pacific Coast. It is also within the realm of possibility that some such giant bear actually existed here, as Inopinatus did, before the coming of the white man.

[Note: the original description was for Vetularctos inopinatus.]

See also, Matt Bille's chapter, Mystery Bears, reprinted here with permission, for more on this specimen.

Historical Reprints