A giant skull discovered in remote Alaska may belong to a mysterious ancient polar bear, referred to by natives in their stories as "king bear". The creature would have roamed these freezing lands about 1,300 years ago.
The find was reported by a team led by Arctic archaeologist Dr Anne Jensen at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium last January.
They say the specimen was discovered after in storm in 2014, at an archaeological site known as Walapka, in northern Alaska.
Unique bear skull
The skull represents the fourth largest polar bear skull ever found, measuring just over 40 centimetres from the tip of the nose to the back of the skull, with large teeth sticking out.
It is not certain how big the bear would have been, but this skull is already a good indication that it would have been a huge animal.
Beyond its very large size, the scientists have noted a number of morphological differences with modern polar bears, which makes this skull unique. The back of the skull appears to be longer and more narrow in this ancient bear when it is compared with modern individuals.
Interviewed by news site Western Digs, Jensen commented: "The front part of the skull, from roughly the eyes forward, is like that of typical polar bears. The back part of the skull is noticeably longer than other bear skulls to which we were able to compare it."
Because some features are similar however, it is likely that it was part of an elusive subspecies of polar bear.
Further analyses suggest that it belonged to a male who lived to be quite old, with radiocarbon dating indicating that it had lived sometime between 670 to 800 CE. Because it is so ancient, the scientists reveal that they have nicknamed this bear "The Old One".
It is likely that similar giant bears still live in the Arctic. They have been depicted in accounts by local people, such as those living in St Lawrence island, who call them "king bears". How closely they are related to this ancient individual bear remains unclear at this stage.
Future research will in fact focus a DNA analysis of the skull and a cross-sectioning of some of its teeth to learn more about this potential other subspecies of bear that inhabited Alaska more than a millennia ago.