Spectacular find could rewrite polar bear history

Spectacular find could rewrite polar bear history

Top image: The polar bear species is older than previously assumed. Photo: Alexandra Nävås/UNIS.

In 2004 a group of UNIS geology students found an ancient polar bear jawbone at Svalbard. Now it turns out that this find could confirm that polar bear as a species has already survived one interglacial period, bringing hope that the first and foremost Arctic symbol can – in fact – also survive the current warming climate.

17 December 2007
Text: Eva Therese Jenssen

In July 2004 a group of UNIS students attending the geology course AG-321/332 went on an excursion together with professor Ólafur Ingólfsson to Poolepynten at Prins Karls Forland, west of the Spitsbergen island.

Spectacular find
During their stay the students stumbled across a jawbone. Later it was confirmed that the jawbone had belonged to a female polar bear – and current dating suggests that the jawbone is between 110 000 and 130 000 years old.

This makes the students’ discovery spectacular, as it previously has been suggested that the polar bear is a rather “new” species, evolving after the last interglacial period.

Until the find of the Poolepynten jawbone, one believed that the oldest remains found after polar bears had been found nearby London, and dated to be around 70 000 years old. However, new DNA testing has revealed that London bear fossil is in fact from a brown bear, not a polar bear.

Increased hope for polar bears
The jawbone, measuring 23 cm, could be the evidence that polar bears have actually survived one interglacial period. The last interglacial period, called the Eeemian, was actually warmer than the present period (the Holocene).

– This find tells us that the polar bear has the capacity to survive a warmer climate, such as we are experiencing now, says professor Ingólfsson.

The jawbone is in good condition, and is currently being analyzed by a team consisting of Professor Ingólfsson (University of Iceland and UNIS) and Professor Øystein Wiig from the University in Oslo, in order to unearth the ancient secrets of the polar bear.

Ancient polar bear jawbone

 This jawbone from a female polar bear was found at Poolepynten by UNIS students in 2004, and could rewrite the history of polar bears. Photo: Ólafur Ingólfsson/UNIS.

 

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