Researchers Examine 3,500-Year-Old Brown Bear Preserved in Siberian Permafrost

Found in 2020, the animal was originally declared to be a cave bear from the Ice Age

Upside-down mummified bear snout with researchers in lab coats and masks
Scientists at North-Eastern Federal University in Russia conducted a necropsy, or animal autopsy, of the bear in late February. North-Eastern Federal University

Two and a half years ago, reindeer hunters discovered a perfectly preserved bear carcass, frozen for millennia in Siberian permafrost. Found on Bolshyoy Lyakhovsky, an Arctic island north of mainland Russia, the creature had its fur, skin, claws, teeth, body fat and internal organs all still intact, which is an extremely rare occurrence.

“This is the first and only find of its kind—a whole bear carcass with soft tissues,” paleontologist Lena Grigorieva said in a September 2020 statement announcing the discovery. “It is completely preserved, with all internal organs in place, including even its nose. Previously, only skulls and bones were found. This find is of great importance for the whole world.”

Now, researchers have announced that the mummified bear is much younger than they had previously estimated, and it belongs to a different species than they originally presumed, reports Live Science’s Harry Baker.

Brown bear claw with measuring instrument above it
The brown bear was a female who was between two and three years old when it died. North-Eastern Federal University

Scientists initially identified the animal—named the “Etherican bear” for the nearby Bolshoy Etherican River—as an extinct cave bear and said it had lived during the last Ice Age, probably between 22,000 and 39,500 years ago. But after conducting radiocarbon dating and genetic studies, they now say the animal is actually a brown bear, and it is 3,460 years old.

Though it’s not a window into the Ice Age after all, the bear carcass still provides scientists with an unprecedented opportunity: Researchers recently completed a necropsy, or animal autopsy, of the bear, reports Reuters’ Guy Faulconbridge. A team of scientists from the Lazarev Mammoth Museum Laboratory at North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) carefully cut through layers of preserved skin, fat and tissue to examine the internal organs below. They conducted a variety of studies of its viruses, cells and microbes, and they sawed through the animal’s skull to extract its brain for further research.

From the necropsy, they were able to determine that the female bear was roughly two to three years old when it died. It stood 5.1 feet tall and weighed around 172 pounds. They don’t know exactly why it died; however, they did find evidence of spinal column injuries.

Researchers in masks surrounding carcass of bear
The creature's last meal likely included unidentified plants and a bird. North-Eastern Federal University

Researchers also got a glimpse of what was likely the bear’s last meal, as the Siberian permafrost had even partially preserved its stomach contents. Inside, they found the remnants of unidentified plants and bird feathers.

Despite all the information they were able to glean from the procedure, researchers still don’t know how the bear got to the island, which is roughly 30 miles from the mainland. They suspect it either swam a great distance or walked over when the water was covered in sea ice; it’s also possible that Bolshyoy Lyakhovsky was once connected to the continent.

Today, an estimated 110,000 brown bears live in the wild, per the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). These behemoths—which can weigh up to 1,500 pounds—live in the tundra and forested areas of North America, Asia and Europe. Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorizes brown bears as a species of “least concern,” the animals still face threats such as oil and gas drilling, human disturbances, pollution and extreme temperatures.

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