Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.
Typically, endless sands dunes below a blazing sun comes to mind when one thinks of the wild Middle East, not the mountain slopes forested with juniper, meadows of bright flowers, and hedges of pistachio, almond, and maple carpeting the forest floor. Here living amongst the noble mouse-like hamster, jackal, red fox, wild sheep, mountain goats, lynx, and Persian leopard is the Syrian brown bear. They are the only bear known to have white claws and their distinct pale, straw-colored fur seems to provide the missing link between their polar and grizzly bear cousins. Stretching from Northern Iran’s lush range off the Caspian Sea, to the Caucasus mountains, and into Turkey, Syrian brown bears are quite small. Still a bear however, they can measure up to four and a half feet from nose to tail and weigh over 500 pounds.
Omnivorous, these bears eat fruit, berries, seeds, plants, grasses, nuts, insects, and small mammals. With agricultural development ever further encroaching on their habitat, they have been spotted consuming grains, harvested nuts, and livestock. The species has had limited observation in the wild due to conflicts in the nations surrounding and making up its territory. Mating is believed to occur between May and July with cubs born around January or early February. Females build a winter den in caves or hollow trees, mostly commonly birch, to give birth and raise their young.
Like all bears, Syrian brown bears play an important role in their environment. Dispersing pieces of the vegetation they consume, they help replant and fertilize the forest. As a predator, they keep mammal populations in balance and clean up carcasses. Keeping their ecosystem healthy and growing is vital to a region with excessive oil production, purifying the air and sequestering greenhouse gases. Yet, the species is threatened by large-scale deforestation, habitat degradation, and poaching.
Native peoples to the region have differing views on the bears. Locals in the Black Sea region hunt illegally for their fat, which is has been proven not to have any medicinal value. Others living in the “Holy Land,” or those throughout Jordan and Syria, revere it as the bear to have been spoken of in the Hebrew Bible, referencing the protectiveness and love of a mother towards her offspring. Historically, Syrian brown bears did habit these countries along with Israel and Palestine, and even as far east at Turkmenistan, but were driven out. In 2004, the first time in sixty years, tracks were recorded in the snow in the Lebanese mountains and again in February 2011. A group of men in the Beqaa Valley in December 2016 reportedly filmed a female with her cub in the snow giving hope that the bear is reclaiming some of its former terrain.