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A Syrian brown bear in Heidelberg Zoo, Germany.

The Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) is a relatively small subspecies of brown bear native to the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Evolutionary history

A genetic study shows that all brown bears occurring in the Caucasus at least matrilineally are monophyletic and belong to Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos).

Description

The Syrian brown bear is one of the smaller subspecies of brown bears, although brown bears as a group are among the largest type of bears, only second to polar bears. Adult males have skulls measuring approximately 30–40 cm. Fur colour is usually very light brown and straw coloured. The hair on the withers is longer with a grey-brown base and is often a different shade than the rest of the body, seen in some individuals as a dark stripe running across the back.

Individuals from the middle and Western Caucasus, whose ranges overlap those of Eurasian brown bears, are darker in colour, and larger in size, leading some naturalists to propose that they are in fact hybrid populations of Eurasian and Syrian brown bears. It is thought that these mixed bears originated during the Holocene when Syrian bears migrated Northward and interbred with the larger Northern bears. These populations have skulls measuring 37–40 cm in length, and their fur colour is reddish brown with no mixture of black and brown tones.

Habitat and distribution

Generally found in the mountainous areas throughout its home range, the Syrian brown bears seem to den and hibernate in caves and tree hollows of the birch forests, which are found at higher elevations than pine and other trees. Outside of hibernation these bears tend to forage for food in grasslands, meadows, forests and have been known to enter mountain villages to feed on grains and nuts.

Within the former Soviet Union, it occurs in Transcaucasia, notably in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkmenistan. Outside the ex-USSR, it occurs in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. It is extinct in Israel, Lebanon and, more recently, in Syria.

Threats

Like many large mammals, the Syrian brown bear population is declining due to habitat loss, and poaching. They are a popular target for big game hunters in the Middle East and in Asia. In addition, bear bile (ursodeoxycholic acid) is a valuable commodity because of its use in traditional Chinese medicine as an assumed cure for rheumatism, poor eyesight and gall stones.

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