Monthly Archives: January 2018

Ellesmere’s Early Bear Revealed

A couple of years ago I was approached by my friend Xiaoming Wang and his team of paleontologists with an exciting proposal: to create a reconstruction of a new bear species they were describing from the High Arctic Ellesmere Island. Ellesmere has a magical resonance for me as the legendary place where the biology of wolves was revealed as never before thanks to direct observations of wild packs that were undisturbed by human encroachment. But of course it is also a place of amazing fossil sites, including one called Beaver Pond Site which provides a wonderful window into the high Arctic ecosystems during the Pliocene.

The first step for my reconstruction was to draw the ancient bear’s skeleton using photographs and measurements of the fossils. Many bones were missing from the site and had to be drawn on the basis of those of living relatives, but still there was enough material to create a reliable approximation fo the animal’s body proportions. The resulting skeletal drawing shows an animal of moderate size, not very different in build and mass from an extant black bear.

A vital part of the reconstruction was to create an accurate rendition of the animal´s face, and for that we had the benefit of a remarkably well preserved partial cranium and mandible. In fact the team sent me a 3D scan of the skull which allowed me to visualize the fossil from any point of view, choosing the best angle to show the bear’s “personality” to advantage.

In this 4-step sketch you can see the process leading from the original render of the digital 3D scan of the skull, followed by the definition of the main muscle masses and the addition of cartilage, skin and fur to complete the outline of the living animal’s head.

The final stage of the reconstruction was to place the animal in a natural setting. The High Arctic Pliocene environment was reconstructed with the help of copious paleobotanical data provided by members of the team. In the background you can see a beaver hard at work in the maintenance of the pond that gives the fossil site its name, and which was an important factor in the local environment.

Nowadays there are no beaver ponds in Ellesmere but its hardy wildlife, including its amazing white wolves, is key for understanding and restoring wild ecosystems through the Holarctic, a kind of reconstruction that is very different from paleoart, and one that we should master if our species is to survive in the long term.

Check the original scientific publication here:
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-17657-8

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