Demythologizing Arctotherium, the Biggest Bear Ever

Video arctotherium angustidens vs polar bear

goliath space farms Demythologizing Arctotherium, the Biggest Bear Ever

Quite a few years back, so long ago that I can’t really remember much more than the fact that I once visited it, my parents took me to Space Farms Zoo and Museum. Tucked away in northern New Jersey, the roadside attraction is not so much a zoo or a museum as a throwback to the curiosity cabinets of Renaissance Europe – a ramshackle collection of odd natural and historical artifacts in varying states of preservation. According to those who have been there more recently than I have, the first two cents the museum’s proprietor earned are displayed not far from the Native American skulls, and the Space Farms website boasts everything from a “primitive tool barn” to a “one-of-a-kind complete miniature circus” and “more than 100,00 other unique items.” If Space Farms ever had one claim to fame, though, it was Goliath.

An Alaskan grizzly bear, Goliath lived at Space Farms between 1967 and 1991. He was enormous. Said to measure twelve feet long and weigh a short ton, he has often been heralded as the largest bear ever held in captivity. Sadly, however, Goliath lived in disturbingly inadequate conditions, and, the pet cemetery section of Roadside America reports, by the end of his life Goliath’s rheumatism was so bad that he couldn’t even drag himself across his concrete floor to get a drink of water. Surprising no one, the managers of Space Farms gave Goliath a second life. A mount made from Goliath’s pelt stands in front of the museum’s fireplace, and his skull rests in a glass case nearby.

Goliath was undoubtedly one of the biggest bears ever seen alive. Assuming his oft-repeated stats are correct, he fell in the upper size range for Alaskan grizzlies. But he was not the biggest bear of all time. That title, as far as we presently know, goes to Arctotherium angustidens.

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The first of five Arctotherium species, A. angustidens was a descendant of earlier bears that traveled to South America when the Panamanian land bridge opened a connection to North America about three million years ago. Scientists have known about this species for quite some time – it was first described in 1880 – but the bones of an elderly male specimen just described by Leopoldo Soibelzon and Blaine Schubert are gigantic. In a photo included in a National Geographic News report, Soibelzon holds up the humerus – upper arm bone – of the bear next to that of an elephant, and the two are nearly equal in size.

The newly-described bones were discovered in 1935 during construction of the San Juan de Dios hospital in La Plata City, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. They date to about one million years ago, and include both the right and left arms. (Part of a shoulder blade was found, as well as a few hand bones, but these fossils have gone missing.) This was probably a very old, cranky male bear. The degree of fusion between the heads and shafts of the arm bones indicate that this was an elderly individual, both humeri show old injuries along one of the bony crests where the massive arm muscles would have attached, and the left radius – one of the lower arm bones – shows signs of infection.

But just how big was this bear? There is no doubt that it was quite large – the limb bones of other bears look puny by comparison – but, without a complete skeleton, Soibelzon and Schubert had to use a bit of arithmetic to estimate the bear’s mass.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>