Alaskan tribes tell stories about “king bears,” a kind of giant polar bear that used to roam the frigid northern wastes, at least in the world of mythology. Also called “weasel bears,” the terrifying beast may actually have basis in scientific reality. A new, giant polar bear skull discovered in Alaska is leading some researchers to speculate that it might belong to a previously unknown subspecies of massive polar bear.
The skull was discovered back in 2014, in Walapka, Alaska. It was the fourth-largest polar bear skull on record, measuring around sixteen inches from nose to the back of the skull. Based on the skull, scientists believe the rest of the bear’s body would have been longer and more slender than contemporary polar bears. Perhaps lending credence to the “weasel” name.
The bear was given the nickname “The Old One” by the scientists studying it. They have radiocarbon dated it to have lived sometime around 670 to 800 AD.
A biologist named Dr. Raphaela Stimmelmayr compared the ancient skull to 300 modern polar bear skulls at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Surprisingly, many of the polar bear skulls bore similar anatomical features with the Old One. This suggests that the Old One may have been a member of a distinct subspecies.
“It’s possible it’s a subspecies,” wrote Jensen. “Or perhaps it’s more like domestic dogs, where a borzoi and pug are considered members of the same species, not subspecies, even though their skulls are far more different than this is from a standard polar bear skull.”
Ethnographers have collected, over the years, accounts of “king” and “weasel” bears from many different parts of Alaska and northern Canada. But interestingly, there are no known folk accounts of giant bears from the Utqiagvik area, where the Old One was found.
Further research is being conducted on the ancient skull. Researchers are running DNA analysis on it, and are studying cross-sections of some of its teeth for more clues as to whether it represents the first evidence of a new subspecies of bear.
Could the weasel bear have simply eluded the people who lived in Utqiagvik? Ethnographers may have not asked the right questions, or the skull might just be a legitimate mystery.
If there were once enormous “king bears” stalking the wilds, the imagination thrills at the idea that there might even be remnant pockets of them alive today. There’s no reason to believe that they are, but it’s still fun to think about.