Frozen fauna – Frossen fauna

Alpine ice bears

By Jørgen Rosvold
Melted out mandible of a brown bear next to a modern skull. Photo: Trond Sverre Skevik, NTNU University Museum

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are usually the bear that one connects with ice, but bones of brown bears (Ursus arctos) have melted out of several alpine ice patches. The 14C dating of one find from Norway forces us to rethink how we study finds from such sites.

During the unusually warm summer of 2014, the alpine ice in Norway melted a lot and some of the old ice patches were almost gone. These seemingly “ancient” ice patches are often highly visible from nearby villages, and their melting away is a concern for many people. This is also true for the ice patch at Resfjellet in Meldal, which was almost lost that year. During the autumn, a concerned local went up to the small ice patch to investigate the small remains of the ice and discovered that two reindeer skulls with antlers and a bear mandible had melted out of the ice.

Lots of reindeer bones are scattered across the melted out scree. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum

The small size of the ice patch and its low altitude made us think that these finds were likely to be quite recent and that the ice patch was relatively young. The radiocarbon results were, however, exciting! As expected, the two reindeer bulls were not that old. One of them had died sometime in the 1950-ies, the other one between 2005-2008, and DNA-samples showed that they had been domestic reindeer. The bear, however, was much older and had wandered around Meldal during the early Viking Age! This find forces us to think larger concerning both the natural and cultural history that is melting out of the ice, as many more sites than what we previously believed might potentially contain old finds and should be investigated.

The ice patch at Resfjellet with the village in the background. Phto: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum

We don’t know what the bear was doing up on the ice patch during the Viking Age, but more bones might melt out in the future. There are so few bears remaining in Norway today, that we know very little of its high alpine behavior. In North America, grizzly bears have been observed to use such sites actively. The ice and snow is used to move more easily to higher grounds in search of insects in the scree. The ice patches also seem to stimulate play and are used to cool down during warm summer days.

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