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The Whole Tail Tale

Two weeks ago, youngest son and the dogs almost ran into a moose in the bush right above the house, and a couple of days ago a young coyote tried to play with the pup. It’s the time of the year, I guess, for running into wildlife.

All the wildlife talk has made youngest daughter afraid that she’ll have a bear encounter on her daily runs. It didn’t help things that oldest son saw two grizzlies while driving on Saturday. Today, then, she took the pup running with her. It’s for protection, she thinks, but I’m pretty sure he’d be no good in a bear attack. He may be big, but he’s a big chicken. I didn’t tell her that because he loves going with her and anything to use up some of his energy is a good thing.

So I’ve been thinking, you see, of this post from almost exactly five years ago. I’ve edited it, updated links when I could (some are gone forever), and posted it again because I can and I want to.

I take questions about my posts seriously and try to answer them whenever I can, even if it means I have to tackle controversial subjects. So when Kim asked a question about the length of bears’ tails (“….don’t bears have little stubby tails?”) on this post, I felt obligated to look into it for her. I had no idea that this would be the most controversial subject I’ve ever researched, one with more disagreement among the experts than even the Calvinism/Arminianism debate.

The experts do all agree on one thing: the official description of a bear’s tail is stumpy, not stubby. But they can’t agree on how long the bear’s stumpy tail actually is. The bear’s tail is “a small, furry flap of skin measuring only about 4.8 inches in length,” says the American Bear Association, while other sites give measurements from two inches to eight. I suppose it depends on the type and size of the individual bear.

I should to be able to answer this question from personal experience, but I can’t. I accidentally saw the back end of a bear up close once, and it wasn’t the tail I noticed, but the overpowering smell. Take my compost pile on a hot July day and turn up the smell control five whole turns and you might have something close to the smell of that bear. Bears, it seems, are not big on personal hygiene. This works well for them, at least if they’re looking to keep the precise length of their tails hidden from the casual observer.

One informative website gave this handy fact: A bear’s tail is shorter than the length of its hind feet. Curious about the length of a particular bear’s tail? It’s easy-peasy, really. Measure one back foot, subtract something or other, and you’ll have a reliable estimate of the measurement of its tail.

The big bear tail controversy continues when we consider a further question: “Why is the bear’s tail as small as it is?” There are scientific answers, but the scientists don’t agree on which one is correct. Bears’ tails are small, some say, because the longer ones they used to have in the olden days were useless. A bear’s display behaviour involves facing forward, either on all fours or back twos, and a tail doesn’t show from that position. Realizing, then, how worthless their long tails were if they weren’t going to be showing them off, bears decided to grow shorter ones. Either that or they found out—polar bears especially—that big ears and long tails were inefficient to heat at forty below zero, so they ditched them.

What’s more, while there are some who argue bears’ tails are small because they face trouble head on, there are scientist of another camp who maintain that bears face trouble head on because they have small tails.

Because of their very short tails and long hair, bears cannot use tail or torso to send signals through body language as some other creatures do. This may explain why the head, neck and mouth are used so much to communicate.

So which is it? Does the tail cause the behaviour or the behaviour cause the tail? See! It’s more like a certain theological debate than you thought, isn’t it?

But why look for scientific answers when there are folk tales and myths that confuse the issue with so much more pizzazz? There’s the famous Norwegian or Ojibway or Iroquois or Navajo one (Yes, there’s even disagreement on the origin of the ancient tall tail tales!) about the fox or trickster or otter or lynx who convinces the bear to do a little ice fishing using his long, beautiful tail. The tail freezes in the ice, snaps off and “from that day to this, all bears have had very short tails.”

Other groups disagree—you may have seen this coming—with the Ojibway/Iroquois/Navajo/Norwegians. The Australian Aborigines say the bear’s tail is short because a very angry kangaroo cut it off with a boomerang. There’s a Malay myth that says that the bear and the tiger tied their tails together and then both panicked and ran off in opposite directions. The bear ended up with the short end of the stick—or the shorter end of the tail, anyway.

So many good answers, but I’ve got one more question. If bears’ tails are short, why do the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor—otherwise known as Big Bear and Little Bear—have long tails? Well, you can blame Zeus for that. He’s the one who flung the bears into the sky by their stumpy tails and stretched them in the process.

And that’s the whole tail tale—everything that we can know for certain about bears’ short tails.

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Reader Comments (1)

When my husband and I went to a camp in Northern Ontario, we saw some bear cubs on the side of the road, but apparently, the best venue for seeing them was the garbage dump. One had to be prepared, though, because I guess they didn't like being watched as they picked through the place. Usually, the young staff workers took the truck out to watch. I didn't make any attempt to visit the dump. When I was in high school, I lived in Calgary, and my friend's father was mauled by a grizzly in Banff National Park.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim in ON

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