|Probable Atlas bear in Roman mosaic|
†U. a. crowtheri
|†Ursus arctos crowtheri|
Range and description
The Atlas bear was Africa's only native bear species that survived into modern times. Once inhabiting the Atlas Mountains and neighbouring areas, from Morocco to Libya, the animal is now thought to be extinct. The Atlas bear was brownish-black in colour and lacked a white mark on the muzzle. The fur on the underparts was reddish-orange. The fur was 4–5 inches (102–127 mm) long. The muzzle and claws were shorter than those of the American black bear, though it was stouter and thicker in body. The Atlas bear was said to have been 9 feet (2.7 m) long and weighed up to 1,000 pounds (450 kg). It apparently fed on roots, acorns and nuts. The Atlas bear was said to have been mostly herbivorous, but since most bears today are omnivores, the Atlas bear is believed to have been able to eat meat as well. If it did eat meat, it was believed to eat small mammals as well as carrion while scavenging.
A mitochondrial DNA study of bones of Atlas bears ranging in age from 10,000 to 800 years Before Present found that the specimens belonged to two distinct clades, one, referred to as "Clade V", was indistinguishable from brown bears found in the Iberian Peninsula, while the other "Clade VI", was highly distinct from all other brown bears, either closely related to the polar bear and Alaskan brown bears or outside the group that contains all other brown bear mitochondrial lineages. Atlas bears appear to not be closely related to Middle Eastern brown bear populations, despite geographic proximity, which suggests that the colonisation of Africa by brown bears was an event of considerable antiquity. It is possible that some Atlas bears interbred with "feral" bears brought to northern Africa by Romans.
The decline of the Atlas bear can be partly attributed to the Roman Empire; as the empire expanded into North Africa, the Romans intensely hunted and captured the Atlas bear (among other local animals) and used them as sport for many of their games. This went on for centuries, during which time thousands of bears were used in the arenas to fight against gladiators, lions, tigers and other animals. They were cruelly treated, often starved and malnourished to increase their desperation, and hence their aggression, within the arena. Thousands of these bears were also hunted for sport, venatio games, or execution of criminals in ad bestias. The Atlas bear became extinct shortly after modern firearms were developed. Over-hunting may have contributed to their decline. Pressure from zoo collectors sealed their fate, with the animals being taken away from one another and unable to reproduce and flourish. The Atlas bear finally became extinct in the late 19th century; the last one recorded to be killed by hunters was in 1870 in the Tetouan Mountains in northern Morocco. Human activity can definitely be said to have played a large role in causing the extinction of the Atlas bear. However, in the 1950s, Atlas bears were supposedly seen in Kabylie, Algeria, by local women picking olives.
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