The four bears mounted here include the Alaskan Brown bear, the Grizzly bear, the Black bear, and the Polar bear. The Black bear is the only bear that currently inhabits California. It eats grasses, insects, honey, rodents, and birds’ eggs.
The Alaskan brown and Grizzly bears are closely related. They eat honey, rodents, larger mammals, roots, and salmon. Unlike popular belief, these bears do not hibernate, and can be easily awakened in the winter.
The large standing Polar bear, Ursus (subgenus Thalarctos) maritimus, was donated by the Koshell family of Sacramento during Dr. Ray Underhill’s tenure as biology department chair. It is one of the first displays Museum visitors see when the enter the west side of Sewell Hall, the science building and Museum.
The hollow, white hair is good insulation for keeping the bears warm, and it adds a little buoyancy while swimming, and it camouflages their black skin from the seals they hunt while out on the Arctic pack ice. They probably descended from the brown Grizzly bears that acquired a mutation for white fur. A similar white fur mutation happened in the Kermode Black bears of British Columbia, Canada.
Their tiny ears reduce heat loss. Seals don’t make much noise so having small ears that don’t gather much sound is not a handicap. The bears hunt mainly by sight or smell odors from the seal dens in the jumbled pack ice. Often they will wait at seal breathing holes in the ice and grab them as they come up to breathe.
The Polar bears have a longer, more narrow snout than their omnivorous Grizzly relatives which helps in reaching into the small breathing holes. They are almost exclusively carnivores, but they have also been known to scavenge on dead whale carcasses. Despite Coca-Cola commercials they do not occur with (or eat) Penguins, a southern hemisphere group of birds.
In 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists noticed that the Polar bear population was declining and decided to protect the population in the United States (Alaska). They were put on the rare and endangered list. People could no longer legally hunt them or import Polar bear material from other countries where it was still legal to hunt them. This made fly fishermen sad.
The hollow white hair was ideal for adding to the front of flies to increase buoyancy and visibility near dusk when the lunker trout often feed. Someone came to the Museum with a pair of scissors and cut off some of the hair on the left cuff, the right groin and on the right rump. Eventually when we noticed it the Museum committee decided we needed to enclose the bears behind glass.
As the climate warms there is less time the Arctic Ocean is frozen and the Polar bears can hunt on the pack ice. While the bears are on land they come into contact with the Grizzly bears more often. Both are still so closely related that there are some cases where the two types of bears have mated and produced ‘Grolar’ bear offspring.
Some people are concerned that the climate warming that is melting the massive ice sheets on Greenland may also cause the extinction of the Polar bears. However Greenland was settled by the Vikings who called it Vinland. Apparently the climate was much warmer then as they build houses and grew vines (grapes and berries?), and the Polar bears survived that episode of climate warming. Gray whales used to migrate through the much less frozen Arctic Ocean between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Polar bears survived that too. Hopefully the Polar bears will find a way to survive, though we should so what we can to help them.
Paul Wagner’s Big and Tall store in Roseville Square decided that their standing Brown bear was no longer needed for their in-store advertising about having clothes for big and tall men and donated it to the Museum. Dr. Ray Underhill had already arranged for donation of the Black bear and the Grizzly bear from other hunters. The much smaller Black bear has significantly larger ears than the large Polar bear.
Dick Hilton of the Earth Science department acquired a skull of the extinct European Cave bear that is on display in the History of Life cases in the south foyer.
A lower jaw (mandible) of an extinct California Grizzly bear from a creek bank near Quincy was donated to the Museum.
In 2015 we found the jaw and other parts of an extinct Spectacled bear near the remains of the Giant Tortoise near Red Bluff. It was closely related to the extinct giant Short faced bear. Both have distinctive ridges on the outside of the lower jaw where the big chewing muscle attaches. A replica of the Spectacled bear skull is on display in the museum next to the giant Short faced bear skull.