Page images
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

tion of the bear, in consequence of the extreme caution which the female practises in selecting her retreat, has been in a great measure dissipated by the circumstance of the American black bear having bred in the Parisian menagerie. Gestation lasts seven months, and the young ones are brought forth in January; they are entirely grey, and without the white collar which characterizes the young of the Euporean brown bear. The period, therefore, which Aristotle has assigned to the latter species, of thirty days, is evidently erroneous.

With respect to the intellectual faculties of the bear, it has been stated by the naturalist who has been most happy in observations of this kind, that “prudence is the principal trait in the character of the bear; circumspection cannot be carried beyond the degree in which he manifests it: he recedes, whenever he is able, from everything unfamiliar to him; if he is compelled to approach it, he does it slowly, calling in aid all his methods of exploration, and he does not advance until he has become fully assured that the object of his alarm is without danger for him. It is not, however, resolution nor courage that he wants; he seems little susceptible of fear; he is not seen to fly; confident in himself, he resists a threatened injury, opposes force to force, and his rage as well as his exertions may become terrible if his life is threatened. But it is especially in defence of their young, that the female bears put forth all the resources of their muscular energies and of their courage : they throw themselves with fury upon every living creature that excites their alarm, and only cease to combat when they cease to exist.

“What adds in some measure to the merit of their prudence and courage is the singular extent of their intelligence, which seems to take away whatever of a blind mechanical character might be considered to appertain to their other qualities. We know the education which the bears receive from those men who get their living by leading these animals from town to town, and making them perform clumsy dances to the sound of a flageolet ; and we can conceive that by means of chastisements and rewards, whilst the animal is compelled to assume the necessary attitudes, that they at length succeed in making him repeat them by word of command. It is by means of these associations that even the most stupid animals can in some degree be instructed. But we have witnessed in many species of bears an education, which was effected freely and by themselves, produce more remarkable results than the compulsatory tuition of which we before knew them to be susceptible. We have observed this in the bears which live in the pits of our menagerie, and are influenced only by the

[blocks in formation]

public, who speak to them and give them dainties. Through the influence of these two means alone these animals hare learnt to perform a number of exercises, which they repeat at the simple word of command, and under the sole expectation of being rewarded by a cake or an apple. Thus at the words mont à l'arbre, they climb the trunk of the tree which is placed in their pit. If one says to them fais le beau, they know that they ought to lie down on their back, and bring together their four paws. At the word priez, they sit up erect and join their fore legs. At the word tourne, they pirouette upon their hind legs, &c.”-F. Cuvier, Dict. des Sciences Nat.

It has been observed, that the black bears of America prosit less by this sort of public education than their European congeners, and it is remarkable that the form of their head presents a less intellectual character.— The polar bear, to the particular history of which we shall now turn, presents a still less degree of docility and intelligence.

This species ranks among the larger productions of the animated creation; but it must be observed that in the accounts of the older navigators its size has been greatly exaggerated. Those seen by the naturalists who accompanied Captain Parry in the northern expeditions, did not in general exceed seven or eight feet in length. Captain Lyon has given the dimensions of one which was considered to be unusually large, being 8 feet 71 inches long, and weighing 1600lbs. A female, which was attended by two cubs, was killed on the 31st of August, 1822, and was so small that two or three men were able to lift her into a boat; yet she must have attained the period at which she was capable of propagating her kind on or before the autumn of the preceding year."- Appendix to Parry's Second Voyage, p. 288.

With the exception of the naked end of the snout, the lips, the margins of the eyelids and the claws, the exterior of the polar bear presents at all seasons of the year an uniform white colour; a provision which renders its movements less easily distinguishable either by its enemies or its prey in the snowy regions destined for its habitual abode. The parts above mentioned are of a black colour; the lips have a purple tinge; the tongue is black, and the whole inside of the mouth is of a pale violet hue. As the polar bear advances in age it acquires a yellowish tint, and the forehead of the old animals is generally devoid of hair, and of a brown colour, a consequence of a remarkable habit this species has of rubbing that part of the head with a swinging circular motion against any hard perpendicular surface.

THE POLAR BEAN.

73 In shape the polar bear deviates more than any of the species from the generic type. It stands lower on the limbs, which are very strong and thick; the body seems consequently longer in proportion, but it is the neck and head that more especially possess this elongated character. The latter is narrow and tapering, and its contour presents a continuous line without that separation of the forehead from the muzzle which we observe in the brown bear. The projecting eyebrows are a peculiar character in the white bear. The eyes have the disproportionate smallness common to the genus ; but the ears are much shorter than in the land bears, and thus form as slight an obstacle as possible while diving. The feet are remarkably long and broad; the toes united by a strong web as far as the roots of the nails: these are of a compressed form, and very strong, but shorter, perhaps, than in any other species. The polar bear can thus steal silently on its prey; and while à noiseless tread is further ensured by the hairy nature of the soles of the feet, this structure at the same time ensures him a firmer footing on the ice.

The hair on the head is very short and close-set; it becomes longer about the occiput and cheeks; upon the body it becomes still longer and shaggy, hanging down from the sides so as almost to hide the legs, and quite concealing the short tail behind. The longer hairs are intermixed at their roots with a very fine white wool or fur.

In considering the habits of this species of quadruped, we cannot avoid, in the first place, being struck with the remarkable geographical position in which nature has placed it. Animals in general, like plants, avoid extreme cold, rather than extreme heat: and though in consequence of being endowed with higher powers, their distribution over the globe is not regulated so absolutely by temperature as vegetables, yet they are considerably influenced by it. It is interesting, indeed, to observe the various modes in which they evade the influence of cold; some escape by migrating to warmer climates; others pass into a state of torpidity, previously placing themselves beyond the influence of low temperature either by surrounding themselves with substances that are bad conductors of heat, burrowing into the earth, or submerging beneath water. But with the present animal, heat seems the chief annoyance, and cold his greatest luxury. He is, however, stated by some to pass the dreariest period of the arctic winter in a torpid state, sheltered from the intense cold by the snow that has accumulated

upon

him. But, as we have before observed with respect to the cominon bear, some doubt also exists as to

[blocks in formation]

snow.

whether the polar bear hibernates, or not. Dr. Richardson observes, “Our navigators confirm the statements of Fabricius and Hearne, that the polar bear does not hibernate, having occasionally seen them in the winter, and actually pursued one in December. It is mentioned in the narrative, that the Esquimaux killed eight or ten in the winter of 1822; and Mr. Edwards learnt from the hunters that they often saw and killed the males when roaming at large during that season, and as often dug the dams with their cubs from under the

These facts seem conclusive as to the uniform hibernation of the gravid females, and the, at least, occasional appearance of the males abroad in the winter. It is possible, however, that the latter may also become torpid in the winter, when the local circumstances of their native districts are such as to preclude them from reaching open water at that season; and thus the opposite opinions of naturalists may be in some degree reconciled.”Appendix to Parry's Second Voyage, p. 229.

it is at the decline of winter that the polar bears, and especially the females, are the fiercest and most formidable. At this period the stores of fat accumulated in autumn have become exhausted, and the maternal cares combining with hunger render the dam remarkably bold. They are rarely, however, the aggressors; but become furious when attacked.

The Siberian hunters, however, assured Pallas that the polar bear was more easily killed than the land bear, rarely surviving two body wounds. “The weak and ill-armed natives of those parts, “he observes,” do not fear to enter into single combat with this powerful and generally dreaded beast, and for the most part come off conquerors. Armed only with a rude spear, they provoke their antagonist; and whilst he rushes madly forward to the attack, they slip with agility to one side and pierce him in the flank; for the bear sees nothing but what is straight before him, and passes blindly beyond his

sor; which has been unaptly attributed to the celerity of his onset. But if he is beset with dogs, he heeds not the hunter, and consequently gives him ample opportunity to wound him from behind or on one side. And thus the Jacuti attack him with great safety, first setting on him a number of dogs; and they dread the polar bear much less than the brown bear. Thus in this unequal conflict the Siberian hunters, who are terrified by the first discharge of fire-arms as much as the American Indians, far exceed the Europeans in boldness and agility; for though the latter fearlessly stand in the ranks and brave the blind fortune of war, yet which of these heroes would venture singly to attack the

THE POLAR BEAR.

bear was

75 bear, armed with a simple lance?” Pallas takes notice of an assertion respecting the ease with which the polar bear, like the scal, may be killed by a blow on the nose; and he observes that a young animal which he kept alive during one winter, was quickly enraged by slight blows on the muzzle, and would then cover the injured part with his hand, or even hide his head with both his fore-feet: but he quotes a statement of Marten's, to the effect that the polar bear will sustain severe wounds on the head without fatal injury: and in the specimen now alive at the Zoological Gardens there

may

be observed a cicatrix on one side of the muzzle, which is apparently the effect of a severe blow. Pallas's

young exceedingly impatient at being touched about the ears or tail. He seemed a dull sluggish animal except when irritated; then, as if by a sudden impulse, he exhibited most prompt but confused motions, standing erect on his hind feet, and attempting to tear with his teeth. When threatened, he snarled with a hissing noise and a fierce expression of the eyes. When enraged and in combat, or unwillingly dragged by his chain, he uttered a graver and louder roar, but never howled like the common bear : he preferred fish and frozen meat to fresh meat, -holding this food between his feet upon the ground as he tore it. He never refused, however, any carcase; and the Dutch observed the polar bears devouring the bodies of their own species that had been slain. But he ate sparingly and not greedily, licking his food a long time. For drink he swa)lowed snow in large quantities and with great avidity, and lapped water. He swallowed also hay and straw, which was afterwards found in a small quantity quite undigested in his stomach. When sleeping, he generally covered his nose with his right paw; and seemed most lively when the cold was most intense. From Pallas's observation respecting the condition of the vegetable substances in the stomach of his bear, it might be supposed that this species was purely carnivorous; but it must be remembered that these substances were of the most undigestible nature. In the Parisian menagerie a polar bear was fed on bread only, consuming six pounds in the day; and after subsisting on this diet five years, it was nevertheless found extremely fat.

In its choice of habitation the polar bear differs most from the rest of the species. Instead of seeking concealment in the depths of forests, it prefers the floating iceberg and the open sea, its powers of swimming peculiarly adapting it to that sphere of existence. It rarely frequents the coasts of the Frozen Ocean, and does not descend to the eastern bound

« PreviousContinue »